Home » Words from Rabbi » Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773

Conquering Fear 

By Rabbi Carmit Harari

Temple Beth Ora — Edmonton, AB

Jean is my hero.  She’s been white – river rafting and cliff diving, and last month, in celebration of her seventy-second birthday, she did a tandem parachute jump out of an airplane.  To my mind, Jean lives her life to the fullest; she is fearless, and I can’t help but be impressed and inspired.  And yet, I’d never do what she does.  I consider myself somewhat agoraphobic, afraid more of falling from a great height than of the height itself, and as anyone of you who’s had perhaps the misfortune of being outdoors with me knows, I am, highly ornithophobic.  In layman’s terms: I’m panic attack scared of birds…  Although I would argue that these fears do not keep me from living a full and fulfilling life, they are, nonetheless a nuisance.  These fears control my ability to fully participate in certain activities; no ferris wheel or roller coaster for me at the amusement park, no visits to the zoo, and most certainly, no jumping out of anything except maybe the arms of my dance partner.

We all have fears.  And what’s more, we often simply choose to live with them.   According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, all fear is real.  In his book, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, he writes: “To me, there are no unrealistic fears.  If your young child is scared of monsters under his bed, the monsters may not be real, but the fear is real.”[1]  I would tend to agree with Kushner’s interpretation.  Simply put, there is no scientific formula that can prove fear invalid or non-existent.  Yet, we continue to feel it.  And in an increasingly complex world, there seems to be much to fear.  Terrorism, natural disaster, rapid change, humanity destroying itself, rejection, growing old, and death to name but a few realities.  Kushner devotes a chapter to each of the aforementioned fears in his book, and I suspect that if we took a survey here tonight, we’d find at least one person who fears exactly one of the items on his list.  Life today is increasingly uncertain, and it is human nature to worry about that which we cannot control.  The trouble is that if we aren’t careful, we allow that worry to control us, and our lives. 

“At one level, of course,” writes Kushner, “fear is a good thing.  Our ancestors at the dawn of the human species could not have survived had they not been sensitive to danger…But as the world changed and grew more complex, it became more difficult to know what to be afraid of.  It became harder to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic fears.  Were we being prudent or paranoid if we didn’t let our children play outdoors when we could not watch them?  Should we stop going to movie theaters for fear of a flu epidemic, a terrorist bomb, or the prospect of being mugged in the parking lot?  Is that foreign-looking man at the airport a dangerous alien or just someone on vacation?  To make matters worse, local television news broadcasters eager to attract viewers and round-the-clock cable news channels desperate to fill their empty hours on days when is happening recycle every fire, every political scandal, every case of child abduction or food poisoning, to the point where people believe these occurrences are a lot more frequent than they really are.  In the words of Dr. Marc Siegel, author of False Alarm:  The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear, ‘Our infectious fears spread faster than any bacteria and ignite a sense of [imminent danger] that far eclipses the reality.’ Dr. Siegel goes on to say, ‘Anthrax is not contagious; fear of anthrax is.’”[2]

Tonight, we usher in a New Year filled with hope and promise.  In this sense, the power of a New Year never ceases to amaze me.  On the one hand, this day is no different than any other day on the calendar, and yet, the idea that tomorrow, based on the number on a calendar, the slate is metaphorically wiped clean and we begin anew, has a significant impact on the way that I feel, and, I suspect, the way we all feel. There is also a tendency to make New Year’s resolutions.  So eager with anticipation are we that we create a list of things we are committed to conquering in the year to come.  I deliberately use the word conquering, because I think that each New Year serves as a motivator for us, a catalyst for making change in our lives.  A metaphorical shot in the arm, a New Year gives us the courage to overcome the fears that control us for, give or take, 360 days a year.

There is one fear in particular, to which Kushner only briefly refers, of which I’d like to make mention.  Especially at Rosh HaShanah, I believe that there is one fear that holds many of us back, as we make resolutions and imagine our lives in the year to come.  What would you do if you knew you could not fail? The first time I heard this question it gave me pause.  Amongst the most paralyzing fears I can imagine, is fear of failure.  As an admitted perfectionist, this fear can be especially harsh, but I believe that we are all afflicted by it at some level.  I am easily able to rationalize the odds of dying in a plane crash or falling off a high-rise balcony.  I am easily able to assuage my fear of falling victim to a natural disaster, or, God forbid, experiencing a terrorist attack.  Sadly, we know these experiences to be all too real, yet I am able to look beyond them.  I suspect that most of us are, for we do not live our lives locked up in our homes for fear of what might happen to us if we venture outside.  But failure…failure is a whole ‘nother subject. 

Every time I face the challenge of a new task, I carefully consider the likelihood that I’m going to succeed at it.  Though in my case self-imposed, the need to succeed underlies the manner in which I approach the task, if I approach it at all, and in some cases, it overrides the desire to try something new and what might be gained as a result.  I can only imagine how many wonderful experiences I’ve missed out on as the result of fear that I might fail.  Time and time again, I’ve let that fear hold me back, instead of enriching my life with new and varied experiences.  Many of you may be unaware of the fact that I love to write.  As a high school student, I actually applied and was accepted to be on the writing staff of our school newspaper, The Herald.  I should have been thrilled, excited for the opportunity to enrich my writing skills.  Instead, at the last minute, I chose to decline the position for fear that I wouldn’t be able to meet all the deadlines.  I gave up a chance to further engage in an activity I enjoyed because I was afraid I wouldn’t be successful at it.  How many times have you missed out because fear of failure held you back?

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard from individuals who apologize for not being more involved in our congregation.  Often, the reason is lack of time, but for many, there is another reason underlying their limited participation in synagogue life:  fear.  When a Jewish baby is born, he or she does not come with a guide to Jewish life, outlining religious services, practices and beliefs.  It is up to our families how or even if, we live out our Judaism.  And for many, while they are aware of being Jewish, and may even have a strong Jewish identity, there is a genuine fear when it comes to participating in synagogue and Jewish life.  The fear that we might make a mistake, the fear that we will fail when it comes to keeping the commandments or celebrating Shabbat, keeps us from fully participating in and enjoying the experience of being a part of the Jewish community. 

“After God’s experience with Adam [at creation], who disappointed God not so much by eating the forbidden fruit as by making his first words to God, ‘I was afraid,’ God remains unsatisfied with the human race for twenty generations, until the time of Abraham, who, when told by God, ‘the challenge will be great but don’t be afraid,’ bravely takes his family and marches into the unknown.  As I read that story,” writes Kushner, “Abraham was able to do what God asked of him because he saw God as encouraging and accompanying him, unlike Adam, who saw God as standing opposite him to judge him.  I have known too many people who think of themselves as deeply religious but whose life is defined by a constant unrelenting fear that they may have done something wrong, said something wrong, eaten something wrong and offended God in the process.  I cannot believe that God wants his creatures to live like that.”[3] 

Imagine what this New Year could look like, if we decided not to live in fear of failure where Jewish life is concerned.  If we allow ourselves to view Jewish practice as an enriching force rather than a paralyzing one,  we can begin to truly appreciate all that Judaism has to offer.  From my perspective, there is no one right way to be Jewish.  Jewish practice takes on a multiplicity of forms and each of us can choose for ourselves which is most meaningful to us.  When, like Abraham, we see God as encouraging and accompanying us along our journeys, we break down the barriers that keep us from fully engaging in our living tradition. 

This year, I challenge you to diminish your fears.  “More than eighty times in the Bible,” writes Kushner, “ God tells people not to be afraid…God says it to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses.  He repeats it four times in His first remarks to Joshua, lest Joshua be overwhelmed by the task of succeeding Moses.  He tells each of the prophets not to be afraid of the demands of their role and commands them to tell the people not to be afraid as well.  In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly admonishes his disciples not to be afraid, and the angel’s first words to Mary are ‘Do not be afraid.’  Why do we need to be told ‘Don’t be afraid’ so often?  I believe that God realizes how many things there are that frighten us, but He does not want us to live dominated by fear.  Fearful people cannot be happy,” says Kushner.  “Fearful people cannot be generous, charitable, or forgiving.  Fear constricts the soul and keeps us from being as fully human as God would like us to be.”[4]

As Jews, we live our lives guided, in part, by the teachings of Torah.  Our conduct is directed by the Ten Commandments, which help ensure we live our lives in an honest and just manner.  The existence of such rules helps ensure we live in a safe and impartial society, free of fear that others will exploit us.  And though we know this to be an ideal, and legitimately live with fear in our hearts, Kushner suggests we find a way to overcome it.  “God spoke to the generation of Moses,” he tells us, “the generation that left Egypt, and gave them the Ten Commandments, forbidding murder, theft, and adultery, enjoining them to respect the truth and honor their parents.  But God also spoke to the generations before them and after them and gave them, and us, an Eleventh Commandment: Don’t be afraid.  God commands us not to be afraid, not because there is nothing to fear but precisely because the world can be such a frightening place, and God realizes that we can never fulfill our potential as human beings if we are paralyzed by fear.  Just as the bans on theft and adultery are not meant to deprive us of pleasure but to make sure we do not miss out on what it means to be a human being in full exercise of our uniquely human gifts of empathy and self-control, just as the injunction to respect our parents is intended to make sure that we do not cut ourselves off from a major source of wisdom, guidance, and love, the Eleventh Commandment, the commandment not to be afraid, is meant to keep us from missing out on many of the blessings of life that are accessible only to those who are able to face their fears, see them clearly, and stare them down.  Don’t be afraid of being afraid,” writes Kushner.  “Our goal should never be the denial of fear but the mastery of fear, the refusal to let fear keep us from living fully and happily.”[5]

In my Weight Watchers meeting a few weeks ago, the following quote was presented to us as a source of inspiration:  “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.  If you can dream it, you can become it.”  My Weight Watchers leader, Jean, lives her life by this philosophy, and this year, I plan to do so as well.  I challenge you to do the same.  “Courage is not the absence of fear,” writes Mark Twain, “but the mastery of fear.”  This year, may we be blessed with the ability to conquer all that frightens us. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah

May you be written for a good and sweet New Year.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

[1] Kushner, Harold, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2009, pg. 12

[2] Ibid, pg. 6–7

[3] Ibid, pg. 167

[4] Ibid, pg. 22–23

[5] Ibid, pg. 23–24