5780: How can we enter a new year with courage? (Erev Rosh Hashanah Service, 2019/5780)
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He is just now receiving the news. His brother – the brother he cheated out of an inheritance 20 years ago – is, after two decades, coming to meet him. Oh – and his brother is bringing a very large group of his closest friends.
He is stricken with terror. He fears for his close family members, he fears for his estate, but mostly he fears for himself.
He begins planning: “Divide up my extended family,” he tells his closest aid. “He can’t get everyone if we’re separated.” He selects an extremely generous gift package for his brother. And he gets on his knees and [prays to God] for the welfare of his family and himself.
He could try to make a run for it. But he knows what he needs to face. He needs to move toward what he fears most.
Despite his terror at what may come, Jacob knows he must cross the Yabbok River and face his brother Esau. And as we read in the first book of the Torah – the book of Genesis – that is what he does.
Each of us stands on the bank of a River this evening. On this eve of the new year, 5780, many of us harbor a catalogue of fears. There are standard fears, universal fears, personal fears, fears specific to our current time and place. Fears that can make us want to run, to hide.
And yet. . .
Here we are, ready to cross. With the setting of the sun, we enter new and unfamiliar territory – a new Jewish year. What awaits us? What do we imagine might await us? Are we afraid of what we’ll encounter in this new land of 5780? And how / will the fears we carry / affect / our journey?
“Al tirah” – “Al tiru”: these phrases appear many times throughout the Torah and into the rest of the Tanakh, our Bible.
Before the parting of the Red Sea parts in Exodus, In preparation for battle in Deuteronomy, before the battle of Jericho led by Joshua, In the book of the prophet Isaiah as a comfort to a downtrodden people.
Al tirah – literally, Do Not Fear. Usually followed by, “for God is with you.”
Do not fear? Really?
Do not fear in the face of war? When facing death? Do not fear an incredibly dangerous situation? What kind of advice is that?
Of course the early founders of Judaism, the rabbis of 2000 years ago whose words live on in Mishnah and Talmud, were nothing if not pragmatic and realistic. They completely understood that a religion cannot legislate emotion. Even God can’t demand that people feel love – or not feel fear. Human beings don’t work that way. Our early rabbis knew that while you cannot make people [feel or not feel] a certain way, there is something you CAN do. You can direct people to the appropriate way to ACT – how to behave as a result of an emotion.
An example: It says in the Torah, “Love your neighbor.” Our rabbis taught: We are not required to actually feel love for the men, women and children who live down the street or across town or one state over. But we ARE required to behave toward them with respect – as the beings created in the image of God that they are. For Jews, “Love your neighbor” means: to treat your neighbor, your fellow human being, as someone who is loved.
So it is with “Al tirah” – “Do not fear.” Judaism does not demand that you never feel fear. That is clearly not a good idea. Al tirah is – like the directive to love your neighbor – an imperative on how we are to act.
We need not move ahead without fear. We are to move ahead despite fear.
Fear is not to be the sole, deciding factor in how we behave, of the choices we make, of the words we speak. Whether we are an individual, a community, a nation, or a world, decisions are never made well when they come directly out of our fears and anxieties.
Jacob stands on the bank of the Yabbok River. Evening falls – he is alone – in the dark – in the wilderness – perhaps confused and disoriented, unsure of his choices. The Torah text reports that he struggles all night with some kind of being. With what is he struggling? The text is unclear. Is he struggling with a person? With an angel? Or is Jacob wrestling within himself? Is Jacob spending this long, dark night battling with his own personal fears and anxieties – his doubts and his lack of clarity? Perhaps he knows the way that is right, but he doesn’t know if he can summon the courage to take that path.
Like our ancestor Jacob, each of us wrestles with doubts and fears on this holy night. A Rosh Hashana reality that has marked every Jewish new year in our people’s history.
There are the personal fears that remain classic favorites, never seeming to go out of style:
Fear of failure and rejection and embarrassment, fear of speaking up and speaking out, fear of abandonment or losing the people in our lives, fearing what others think of us, of acting or appearing foolish or stupid or incompetent, fear of not being good enough, fear of wasting our days or years or lives and not living up to our best selves.
We have fears about health and money, children and parents.
And then there are the specific fears that mark a particular era.
On this Rosh Hashana 5780 we may additionally fear rising anti-Semitism, being the victim of a mass shooting, environmental collapse, terrorism, an unclear political future.
Rosh Hashanas past contained their own specific fears: large-scale terrorism on American soil, nuclear war, being drafted, pogroms by Russian Cossacks, being exiled from one’s homeland and, of course, much worse.
Being fearful is part of what it means to be human. And it is absolutely part of what it means to be a Jew.
But just as Jacob’s night of struggle eventually has to come to an end – day will dawn and action will need to be taken, so will the sun rise on us tomorrow and there we – will – be. In a new year. And we will need to go out into the world on a path of our choosing.
On this day of reflection and looking ahead, each of us has choices to make. Which path do we take? Each one of us needs to decide: whether or not to speak up about something we feel is not right, whether or not to take a chance on a new challenge that may prove difficult, whether or not to connect with people who may reject us, whether or not to attempt to correct a situation that has long been bad but which may not be correctable, whether or not to be honest when the consequences of our honesty may be great, whether or not to be vulnerable when we may get hurt.
And because it is easy to see life through the lens of our fears, it is tempting to perceive our choices as being one of two paths: A dangerous road of risk and putting yourself out there to be vulnerable and possibly to fail / and a “safe” road of status quo, of laying low. A road where one tries to walk invisibly, while constantly ready for any and all possible dangers.
But here’s the thing:
2000 years ago, Rabbi Chanina made a statement that rings incredibly true to this day. He said it as part of a Talmudic discussion about the travellers’ prayer. He said: “All roads – are presumed – dangerous.”
ALL roads are presumed dangerous.
And so they are.
When we, driven by anxieties to take no risks, choose to live an undesirable status quo, that road is dangerous. That is the road with a high likelihood of depression, resentment, unhappiness, regret. It is the road taken on which we can become bitter over time. And if everyone chooses the road of keeping to themselves, of never speaking up, of trying to stay under the radar – that road leads to a very frightening and potentially evil world.
But wouldn’t it be wise, in our modern setting, to move ahead in a continual state of high alert? Always prepared for the worst to spring upon us?
There is scientific research to show that living in a high state of alert raises your risk of PTSD, of social anxiety, of sleep problems. It increases one’s chance of being diagnosed with heart disease 300 – 500%. It is shown to be connected to greater intolerance for people of other races and religions.
ALL roads are dangerous. Dangerous personally and dangerous for a healthy society.
Which brings us back to our Jewish teaching: “Al Tirah”: Do not allow your fear to drive the bus down your personal road. It is like trusting the path of your life to a drunk driver. Your journey is being decided by something with no critical thinking, no ability to discern or analyze and very poor judgment.
Jacob wrestles in the darkness all night. And then he sees the sun rise. He understands that the struggle has to end – it is time for him to move forward. He then understands that his struggle has been a holy one. His fear has gone one-on-one with the Godly voice of conscience within. Perhaps the toughest battle of his life. But he knows he must do the right thing – He must face his brother who he wronged. He is still scared, but he knows he cannot allow that fear to cloud his judgment and his conscience.
We learn from the Torah that it is because of this struggle that Jacob’s name is changed. He will now be known as Yis-rael, Israel. Meaning, “The one who wrestles with God and Godliness.”
This struggle leaves Yisrael with a wrenched hip – he now walks with a limp that will be with him throughout his life.
Each of US is Yisrael. Each of us is a part of the people Israel. We as individuals and we as a people have long wrestled with making righteous choices in a scary world. Our history, both personal and communal, has left us with a limp – with an injury that we carry emotionally if not physically. We know that our worst fears can actually come true.
But we must remember that a weakness can actually be a strength. Perhaps Jacob – Yisrael – went through his life reminded by his limp that although there are times in life that are wrenching, he has within him the Godly strength and resilience to get through with dignity and integrity.
As do we.
One of our earliest Jewish teachers, Ben Zoma, asked, “Eizeh hu gibor?” “Who is the one who is brave and mighty?” His answer? “The one who can control his negative inclination.” Or, to phrase it a different way, “The one who can put his or her fear in perspective.”
We will make choices: Today and every day of five thousand, seven hundred and 80. Many factors will go into those choices. Fear will be one of them. Fear must not be the dictator over them.
Jacob’s worst fears were not realized. Just as, thank God, our worst fears are unlikely to be realized. Esau greeted Jacob in peace and with open arms. All was forgiven.
But, of course, Jacob couldn’t have known that. The outcome of his meeting with Esau was out of his control. The outcome of our choices and paths is very often out of our control as well. There is no safe path.
But we CAN control how we make our choices. How we take many factors into account. How we make the right choice for us and those around us: with integrity, with honesty, with good self-knowledge of what brings us fulfillment and joy, with an eye toward our vision of a respectful, caring, peaceful world.
Even though our fears don’t vanish, that is how we live the teaching of “Al tirah.” That is how we enter 5780 with courage.