Parashat R’eih 5782 / Rosh Chodesh Elul
Let’s talk about being fearful, and experiencing fright. If you are like me, a road-weary optimist, when I first consider fear, my thoughts are how to overcome it: I tell myself that each day I should do something that scares me. Yet the idea that any of us can conquer our fears is a fallacy. Instead, we work to understand that which makes us anxious and ill at ease, what generates it, and how to manage it. Think back to every time over the last several years you heard you were exposed, then swabbed your nose, and waited fifteen minutes to see if you caught the virus. The endurance of this pandemic, and just how easily our lives can be slightly inconvenienced or seriously impacted, is a reminder of the fragility with which we live.
Last month, I reflected on the meaning of the Middle journey, and how we choose to move through our mid-lives so that those years are less directionless ramblings and more of a purposeful wandering. The Middle is marked by vulnerability. Looking through an internal, spiritual frame, wandering in our own wildernesses can be a scary place to be.
At our core, while we wander, we want to know that everything will be alright and that our anxieties and suffering are not permanent. There is a sense of the way things should be—our Promised Land, where we can live a day at ease. Fear and anxiety live in the discordance between the Wilderness and the Promised Land. The Middle can be a fearful place to sit. And simply put, we want to know that we are going to be okay.
In response to that fear that the wilderness brings up within us, God through Moses offers the Israelites, offers us, words of encouragement: “Chizku v’Imtz’u v’al tirah, Be strong and resolute, do not fear,” for I am with you. In the next verse, Moses repeats this charge to his successor, Joshua. And once they are in the land of Canaan, Joshua repeats these words of encouragement again to Israel.
Chazak v’Eimatz, be strong and resolute, do not fear the vulnerability you feel, for God is with you.
Friends, we each wander along in our own way. The essential experience of being a Jew is to live with uncertainty. “My parent was a wandering Aramean,” we remind ourselves at Passover as if to say quietly, “And so am I.” To be a Jew is to walk a path not yet defined. Simply put, we are strangers in a strange land.
Which can make us anxious people, for good reason.
With this awareness, God, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, and the Jewish tradition does not want us to be ruled by our fears. “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” right?
How strange it is then that for any leader’s encouragement not to fear, how much it comes up. We want our leaders, and we want ourselves to be brave, which means enduring unpleasantness even when it is scary. Leaders not only sense their follower’s fears but feel it, themselves. To be brave is to notice the fear, and to do the important and wise thing anyway.
Generations later, teaching on that same biblical phrase, “Chazak v’Eimatz, be strong and be resolute,” Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav would pick up the argument, suggesting that we hold one key to addressing our fears: service to God.
Rebbe Nachman was concerned with the internal, spiritual experience of the wandering Jew. Living in Ukraine during a politically and economically uncertain—even violent—time, Rebbe Nachman focused much of his teaching on joy as a form of service. He suffered from depression, so turning to joy must have been a profound spiritual and psychological effort and salve. In his reflection on the meaning of the encouragement to Chazak v’Eimatz, to be strong and resolute, Rebbe Nachman turns to what an individual can do to generate strength and resolution in the face of the unknown: “Know: a person must pass across an exceedingly narrow bridge. The rule and essential lesson is that he should not yitpacheid, fear within himself.”
Perhaps a version of this teaching is familiar. We sing it as a song, made popular first by an Israeli singer during the Yom Kippur War, “Kol HaOlam kulo gesher tzar me’od, The whole world is a very narrow bridge, v’lo l’facheid klal, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
Yet, the difference between the song and what Rebbe Nachman was teaching is significant: From time to time, we all walk along narrow bridges. Moreover, when we are there, the rule and the essential lesson is to not yitpacheid and build up the fear within ourselves. In Hebrew, pachad is the root meaning fear and anxiety. Yitpacheid, the way that Rebbe Nachman uses the term, is reflexive. It’s an internal experience, something that comes up within ourselves. It is not the world around us that is fearful, but the anxiety that wells up from within when we find ourselves on those inevitable narrow bridges is something that is real but that we should not engage in.
Here, Rebbe Nachman introduces us to a paradox. If we invariably will end up on a narrow bridge of our own making, how are we to not then fear? The recognition that it is a scary place is to then assert that it is normal and expected to experience fear when you find yourself there. To tell us not to fear seems like an instruction we cannot meet.
Yet, Rebbe Nachman does not leave us dangling from our own bridges with actionless axioms of encouragement to not fear. “Give yourself much encouragement,” he teaches, “as days and years stack on top of one another, and with God’s help, you will surely enter into the gates of holiness.” When we find ourselves on narrow bridges, we are to remind ourselves that it will be okay. And the more narrow bridges we cross, and the more we come to the other side, we learn to trust, we learn what day-to-day bravery looks and feels like. The bridge is not so narrow anymore, and our anxiety abates.
Rebbe Nachman continues, “Each time you shift just a bit from the material world toward God’s service, those movements and changes stack up, combine and bind together, and come to your aid in your time of need.”3 We live in the material world, and that is a place that brings about anxiety, doubt, and suffering. And the more we can spiritually detach from all that we grasp for, we find ourselves more at ease, without fear.
We live in an uncertain world at a difficult time. Knowing this, Rebbe Nachman encourages us to cultivate a sense of solidity by separating our spiritual selves from that material world that causes so much fear and anxiety.
We achieve these spiritual heights with intention and effort. So much of Nachman’s teaching can be seen as similar to the essential teachings of the Buddha. “All life is suffering,” the Buddha taught. Taken one way, what a depressing statement. Suffering is natural, and it comes up for all of us. The sort of suffering that the Buddha was talking about is the dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our lives, the wandering through our Wildernesses when we wish we were living in the Promised Land.
Borrowing from Buddhist thinkers, I want to suggest that to actualize Rebbe Nachman’s charge to shift our attention away from the material world toward service to God, we need to do three things.
First, we need to welcome awareness of our suffering, our anxieties, our sadness, and our fear. This is what Buddhist scholar Susan Salzberg calls “Lucy,” the nagging voice of self-doubt that enters her mind when she is sitting in meditation. We all have different voices that enter our minds when we sit with our thoughts. She noticed consistently a voice of self-doubt would show up for her. So, Salzberg decided to name her Lucy, after the Peanuts character. This is the anxious presence within her, telling her she should just stop, to give up anyway. It isn’t worth it. Now, when Lucy shows up in her thoughts, Salzberg welcomes her like a familiar friend. “Oh hello, Lucy,” she thinks while meditating, and then over the years—as Nachman puts it—with experience those little moments of noticing Lucy stack up and bind together to minimize the suffering she then causes. We each have a Lucy, a crazy maker, within us. And, we can name that voice whatever we may like. And the more then that I can recognize it is a part of me, I can welcome it and give it the right amount of energy it needs. No more and no less.
The second thing we can do to not fear when we cross those narrow bridges is to change our response to the suffering.
Finally, the Buddhist teachings on suffering and Rebbe Nachman’s encouragement to separate ourselves from the material world have to diverge on one point. Buddhist thinking seems to stop with the realm of noticing what is going on within ourselves spiritually and also changing our overall attitude toward that which causes us suffering. Sure, we cannot change that which brings up the fear within us, but from a Jewish perspective, we also serve God by serving one another. The third thing, I believe, we each can and should do to fight off the worries and fears that surround us is to remember that we are obligated to ma’asim tovim, to good deeds, namely to care for one another. And so when the going gets tough, perhaps that is also a time to get out of our own way and go help someone else.
When we fill our days, weeks, and years caring for others, we bring our own challenges into perspective. The pandemic has driven this point home. If you are like me, I fear testing positive, getting COVID again, going through the hassles it presents again, confronting the dangers of long COVID, and the dread that I might infect others. Bikor Cholim, caring for the sick, though is an antidote to that fear. COVID is real, and when someone gets that positive test, to offer them meals, to make sure they’ve got a stack of books while put up at home, whatever the case may be, makes a difference for them and perhaps for us too. Yes, we were there for our friends through their loss during shiva, but we need to remember to call at the end of shloshim, too. Going online at the end of the week, before Shabbat comes in, and making tzedakah to some key groups making a difference in the world. These small actions stack up and bind themselves within us to fight off the fear when it encroaches. One person’s physical needs should be my spiritual needs, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught.
We are the wandering Israelites. And in that middling space, it is to be expected that we will worry, that we will feel anxiety and fear. Yet, God is with us, if we choose to notice. And we do that best by noticing and naming the fear within us, doing the work to transform how we relate to it, and then doing all that we can to renew our commitment to caring for the other wanderers in our lives.
These are uncertain times in which we are living. May we each know little fear. May we be at ease. May we be brave. Yet knowing that we will not be always, may we give ourselves the space and time to address those fears and find ourselves in a more solid, spiritual place, bringing more comfort for ourselves and for those whom we love.