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October 12, 2016

Facing Fear: Walking the Very Narrow Bridge (Yom Kippur 5777)

Maurice A. Salth

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“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving. It doesn’t matter.
[Come even if you are broken or scared or afraid.]
This is not a caravan of despair.
Come whoever you are1.”

Last month my wife and son attended a child’s birthday party in Chelsea – at Chelsea Piers. Later that night, a few blocks away from where they had been, that makeshift bomb exploded. Thinking about it now makes my heart stop.

I turned on the TV to get news of this explosion. The mayor was holding a press conference. He was consoling us New Yorkers. He told us not be intimidated and encouraged us to go about our everyday lives.

As I watched him standing there besides the police commissioner I flashbacked to my youth; to a favorite television crime drama circa 1981 called “Hill Street Blues.” Each show began with the police sergeant gathering his officers for a briefing on all the crises in the city; as the briefing ended and the officers got ready to go out in the world the sergeant would stop them and say: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

I hear myself saying that to my son Caleb as kiss him and see him off to school each morning, on the phone as I finish a call with my parents. I hear friends at the end of Shabbat services say to each other – “goodbye, be careful; get home safely…I love you.” Sending each other off with safeguards and endearments.

We are dependent on one another; we are all vulnerable; we are part of a larger complex, chaotic world. It can be frightening.

How does how our tradition help us face fear?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote:
Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-i-kar lo l’fached klal

The whole world is a very narrow bridge;
the important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.

With this metaphor Rabbi Nachman describes our world from the individual’s point of view. For each of us the experience of living one’s life in this world is as if we are on a very narrow bridge with potential dangers all around. He entreats us not to be overwhelmed by fear – whether it be sickness, financial insecurity, relationship challenges, fear of dying – whatever makes us afraid.

Fear. Albert Einstein called fear one of the three greatest forces in the world. It is a complex emotion that prompts us to respond in myriad ways. It can paralyze us. It can also help protect us.

Fear plays a big part in the story of the Israelites journey to Israel. After the Israelites are freed from Egypt, the Torah says that Moses selects twelve tribal leaders to act as scouts and to explore the land.

The leaders set out on their mission and return after forty days. In this story we learn the power of the words that we utter. Two of the leaders, Caleb and Joshua report that the Israelites will succeed in the new land flowing with milk and honey. The other ten leaders give a much grimmer report. They describe the strength of the people living there, that they are giants and that the land will devour any newcomers.

Upon hearing these stories, the Israelites become frightened and weep through the night. They lament about their wives and children being carried away and say, “let us head back to Egypt, it would be better there.” Oy gevalt! The Israelites’ mission and purpose vanishes from their consciousness and is replaced by pure panic.

Here the Torah teaches us that words matter. Leaders and all of us have great sway with each other. It is incumbent upon us to be responsible with what we are communicating.

Moses is speechless in the midst of this chaos but Caleb and Joshua exhort the people to calm down and “have no fear.” They soon learn the timeless lesson that never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

Because the Israelites’ fear is all consuming, God reassesses their ability to go into Israel. God determines they must wander in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land3. Sometimes our response to fear determines the path our life takes.

Joshua is selected to be the next leader after Moses. Legend says Joshua is full with fear, yet he had proven himself. Moses knows he is the right man for the job. At Joshua’s inauguration ceremony Moses charges him with the words “chazak v’ematz4,” be strong and courageous. Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains chazak v’ematz – be strong and courageous – means: “to be firm in [one’s] principles and strong in carrying them out5.” Stay true to one’s path and be as strong as possible in doing so, even when, especially when, the path feels like a very narrow bridge.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and…easier.” She said: “We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down6.”

Sometimes we don’t feel strong and courageous. Sometimes in the face of the fear we are paralyzed and overwhelmed. Many in the bible faced daunting situations and they found themselves paralyzed as well. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Elijah7, the list goes on. Like them, no matter how we might behave in the face of fear, all of us are to be loved and respected. We do the best we can. We take the smallest step. We get out bed in the morning; go onto the subway, have a courageous conversation; begin a new medical treatment. We do whatever we can do.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
[Come even if you are broken or scared or afraid]
This is not a caravan of despair .
Come whoever you are.”

Our tradition says we are all welcome here – no matter how scared we are, no matter how painful our struggles might be. We have come to the right place.

Richard Stengel worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography. Stengel writes: “I cannot tell you how many times [Mr. Mandela] told me…that he had been scared. He was scared during the trial that sentenced him to life in prison; he was scared when wardens on Robben Island threatened to beat him… he was scared when he secretly began negotiations with the government…He was never afraid to say he had been afraid…In each instance, he said, he did everything he could to tamp down his fear… he taught me courage is not the absence of fear, it’s learning to overcome it8.”

And then we’ve seen fear become fuel propelling someone forward.

Wendy Siegel, our fellow congregant, gave me permission to share that when she learned she had cancer, she was shocked and terrified. Hers has been a fierce five-year battle. She told me: “there was no way of avoiding the fear, but I was determined to turn my fear into strength to battle this terrible blood cancer. From the beginning of my journey my mantra became: you don’t choose the assignments you get, but you do get to choose how you handle them. I was not going to let this fear overcome my resolve to beat the leukemia. I visualized myself as the conductor, the engineer of my own train traveling down the track towards my recovery.” She also found herself repeating what her mother Marian had taught her: “the impossible, just takes a little longer.” Wendy, so many of us feel genuinely privileged to have you as a friend.

Knowing Wendy and her story steadies me. Each of us traverses a narrow bridge. We can take each other’s hand, we can give each other strength. We can walk the narrow bridge together.

Here we have so much to offer each other. We have members who’ve had to face the worst of the worst; a cancer diagnosis, a child with crippling anxiety, a spouse with Alzheimer’s, you name it. And these members have come to us and said: “If you hear of anyone in our community facing something like I did, please have them call, please connect them with me, I want to help.”

Right in the middle of Manhattan, our synagogue is a modern day shtetl – a haven where people can reach out to one other along the path. If you would like to offer your strength to someone or if you need help right now yourself with something large or small, please let us clergy know. We can manage our fears together.

We worship. When we sing Haskevinu we ask for shelter from our storms. We call out the names of loved ones before we sing our mi sheberach prayer for healing. In silent prayer we center on what most presses on our minds. This is a sanctuary for each of us to wrestle with what is going on in our lives.

And we find support through prayer and God. Eighteen years ago, when our Rabbi Emeritus Peter Rubinstein saw our magnificent sanctuary engulfed in flames he prayed. He said: “I closed my eyes while the smoke filled my nostrils and I asked God for strength, strength to make it through what I knew lay ahead, strength to shape the future and to lead into the traumatic unknown9.”

Tonight we have heard the piercing call of Kol Nidre. There was a time when Jews recited this prayer to protect them from what they feared the most. Now, tonight, we are invited to take an honest, compassionate look at our own individual fears. If we can, we are to talk about them with those we trust the most. What are our fears, what are these fears truly about, what if anything can we do about them?

Tonight as we walk this very narrow bridge, I wish you chazk v’ematz, strength and courage. May we grapple with our fears, supported by those closest to us, by this sacred community and our powerful tradition.

This night and every night let us find our way forth into life so that we may do our best within our given time.

And hey…let’s be careful out there.

Shanah Tovah.

  1. Words by the 13th Century poet Jalaluddin Rumi
  2. Words by the 18th Century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
  3. A summary of Numbers chapters 13 and 14
  4. Deuteronomy 31:22
  5. Jewish Action Magazaine of the Orthodox Union: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch - Torah Leadership for Our Times
  6. Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn By Living, (New York, Harper and Row Publishers, Inc. 1960), p. 41
  7. Abraham and Sarah in the story of the Egyptian famine (Genesis 12:10-20); Hagar and her casting out into the wilderness with Ishmael by Abraham (Genesis 21:14-16); Isaac during the Akedah and Sarah after the Akedah (Genesis 22); Elijah (I Kings 19) fleeing for his life from Ahab and Jezebel;
  8. Richard Stengel, Mandela’s Way (New York, Crown Publishers, 2010), p. 25
  9. Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, Words of Faith, Hope and Character, p. 76