On this Yom Kippur I wish to speak about the inner life. In particular I want to talk about fear. It is real. It is pervasive. We are frightened by a resurgent antisemitism. And to be sure, I spent plenty of time talking about antisemitism and how we might battle it on Rosh Hashanah. We are afraid of terrorism and wonder where the next attack might be. 9-11’s wounds still run deep. Our children are terrified by climate change and speak about the rising of the oceans as if it’s already happening here on Long Island. Our parents are nervous about the economy and watch the stock indexes as if their very next meal depended on it. We are nervous about our children getting into college or getting into too much trouble when they are away at college or later, traveling by themselves throughout this broken world or then finding a job that they will find fulfilling and meaningful. We read about the latest threats to our health, which medicines might cause cancer and which habits might shorten our years. We are afraid of strangers and time after time, decide we would rather go out with trusted friends rather than going someplace new and meeting new people. Need I go on—again? There is an endless list. Each of us could add plenty of items to the compilation. Each of us carries a host of fears in our hearts. And, I could on this Yom Kippur day explore any one of these challenges, and fears. That is not my intention. Instead I wish instead to speak to how are we going to manage this fear. I wish to continue the discussion we began on Rosh Hashanah evening. Where are we going to place these overwhelming fears? How are we going to move forward without being consumed by them? How can we no longer be ruled by our terrors?
Our tradition offers some guidance. That, as you might expect, would of course by my perspective. It stands to reason that a rabbi would think Judaism has the answers. Let’s first examine these days, called Yamim Noraim, days of awe. But the Hebrew word for awe, yirah is the same as it is for fear. These days could also be translated as days of terror. There are any number of our prayers that invoke fear. “On Rosh Hashanah this is written, on the fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed, how many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die…” Thank God the cantor sings this prayer to an upbeat tune. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” (And thank God the cantor sings it rather than me.) The music is an antidote to the prayer’s literal meaning. Do we even believe such words, “…who by fire and who by water, who by war and who by beast, who by earthquake and who by plague…”? Are they meant to frighten?
According to legend this Unetanah Tokef prayer was authored Rabbi Amnon, an eleventh century Jewish leader living in Mainz, Germany, who was brutally tortured and martyred. Prior to his death, during these very days, he offered these words, “Unenatanah tokef kedushat hayom.” And that, quite frankly, just makes this prayer all the more frightening. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” And that of course brings me to one answer of how we should confront fear. Sing! Sing loudly. Clap your hands and dance. I’m not saying ignore the terrors. But music has a way of healing. It has a way of even banishing fear or at the very least helping us to forget them for a little while.
No rabbi exemplifies this more than the Hasidic giant, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. He was the great grandson of the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. If you have been to Israel, his followers are those hippie like youth who park their colorful van with large speakers on top, and sing and dance wildly on Ben Yehuda’s streets. Their goal is to allow God’s magnificence to overwhelm all other worries. You can’t get too afraid if you are dancing. Yirah, fear, must be understood as awe. They might even argue that fear of God is a good thing, and a good fear. If that terrifying Unetanah Tokef prayer motivates you to do good, to correct your wrongs and do better, then what’s wrong with that kind of fear? It can be motivating. It can even be edifying. But that’s not how I like to do things—not the dancing part—but the fear as a motivation part. Then again if that’s how the right thing gets done the tradition will take it. Personally, I prefer to understand yirah as awe and to try to infuse as much of life with the feeling of “that’s awesome.” Sometimes it does require a good deal of singing and most especially dancing. That’s the medicine. You have to get out there and move.
Among Rabbi Nachman’s most famous sayings is: “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar maod, v’haikar lo l’fached klal—the whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” It seems that Nachman did not just sing and dance. He was not oblivious to fear. The world does not always appear so wonderful. Sometimes it is constraining. At times it is narrowing. Summon the strength and walk forward. Do not be afraid. Easier said than done, Nachman. Sometimes we want to just curl up and not even look at that bridge. Sometimes we just want to turn around and walk in a different direction.
We walk the other way most especially when asked to meet new people. We would rather just hang out with friends. We would rather just go out with people we have known for years. It feels—well, safer. Judaism urges us to love our neighbor. V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha. But how many of us actually even know everyone who lives on our block? What about the people living down the street? How about those who live on the other side of town? How often have we actually struck up a conversation with someone standing in line next to us? Love the neighbor. But they could be different. They could even be dangerous. I get it. The Hebrew word for neighbor has embedded within the word for evil, rah. It’s a fine line. They could be strange. They could have ideas different from our own. And so, we retreat to known acquaintances. We withdraw to like-minded conversations.
Nothing has injured the bonds that can be made between neighbors, between those standing right by our side than that thing we clutch most tightly in our hands as if it is a lifeline. I am talking about the cellphone. We stand in line, with our earbuds in our ears, talking to friends miles away. We text people who may in fact be on the other side of the world but miss out on making a new friend who could be standing by our side. The world, and its myriad of people, and its possibilities for new friends and new discoveries, await us, but we scroll through Instagram photos posted by well tested friends or to make sure we have not missed out on some big event or some gathering. “Really Jenna was invited to that party. How come I wasn’t?” Snap a sad face to some of your friends to make sure they also were left out. It’s crushing. Look up. The sun is still shining. The sky is blue. Put on a song. Start tapping your feet and dance. Talk to the person standing next to you.
There is a fear that is driving all this. And it is called FOMO. Yes, my young students, you thought I was not paying attention. Fear of Missing Out seems to drive much of what we do. And it is real. I am not all suggesting, nor do I believe, that we should get rid of our iPhones. But we have to figure out how to use them and how not to be so dependent on them. They are extraordinary innovations. Who can imagine navigating traffic without Google Maps or doing homework without Google Translate? Who can imagine not being able to text or WhatsApp someone regardless of the time zone they are in? Then again try talking some more to the person who sits by your side, in the same time zone. For all the connectedness the cellphone provides we now recognize it causes a great deal of loneliness. And that is because people need connections in real time. People need words spoken to them and spoken with them. They need to look at each other when they are trying to say something really important, or something really difficult, like “I’m sorry.”
I have a crazy idea, albeit an old fashioned one, but one that I most especially hope my young students heed. As opposed to taking so many selfies of yourself in this place or that, text your friend the following words “I can’t wait to see you and tell you about this beautiful place I am visiting right now or this amazing experience I am having right now.” And then are you ready for this, when you see them, use your words to paint a picture of that place or that experience. Try doing that without scrolling through your photo roll. Because then you can fill in the nuance, the good moments as well as the bad. Have you ever seen my Facebook feed? It’s only pictures of me smiling, as well as of course a lot of blog posts and articles that I find thought provoking. Those pictures are all curated happiness. They’re just snippets of laughter and smiles. That’s not all there is to life. But this is what we do now. We accumulate “smile for the picture” snapshots and then what do we do next. We delete every picture from the photo roll that is not perfectly flattering.
That’s not real life. Reality is when you sit down with a friend and you talk about the good and the bad; it’s when you tell stories; it’s when you hug and when you hold people close. It’s when you open your heart to meeting new people and learning from other people. There have been recent studies that indicate the iPhone suppresses compassion. One study even found that when people are sitting around a table together, but leave their phones on that same table, their empathy and concern for others are diminished. I am just as guilty as the next person. “Why hasn’t Ari texted back? Oh my God. I hope he’s ok.” It’s been…five minutes already. I better check Find my Friends.
There is a world of people, friends and neighbors and even strangers, who are waiting to be listened to and learned from. And here is another idea and this one might be even more radical. Try leaving your phone at home for at least one hour on Shabbat, on Saturday. I’m not suggesting that we should start not using electricity and begin walking to shul on the Sabbath day. Just try this idea. And then, without your phone in tow, but instead, a friend by your side, go for a walk and just talk. Or go outside, even by yourself, in God’s big, beautiful world and take it in. Breath deep. Now you might miss out on taking a picture of a beautiful sunset, or even of a rainbow, or you might miss taking a picture of someone doing something really funny that you wish you could Snap to a friend, but that’s ok. Let those remain in your mind. File it away in your memories rather than among all those Gigs of storage.
Shabbat is supposed to be vayinafash. It’s supposed to restore our souls. It’s supposed to renew us. The tradition even suggests that we gain an extra soul on this day. Make use of it. If we are always looking for the next best selfie or the funniest Snap, if we are always pining after what we are missing out on, then there is no way we are going to enjoy where we are right here and now. So, look up from your phones and pay attention. The cure for FOMO is the person nearest you, the congregation sitting around you right now at this very moment. It’s not on your screens.
We now know. This wonderful device may in fact cause more fear than connectedness. It is deceptive. It seems like it connects us. I can talk to my kids no matter how far away they might be. Then again, I am inundated with alerts on a constant basis. My phone lights up: “The Supreme Court returns to a raft of polarizing cases…” and “Final: Eagles 31 Jets 6.” And I become agitated every time an alert flashes. I could have read that in the next day’s paper. I could have watched that on the evening news. I could have guessed the Jets would lose. Why do I need to know that right now? Fear seeps in. We are harried by this constant barrage of information. Will your fantasy league survive if you read the injury reports an hour later? Will your friendship likewise survive if you don’t Snap a picture of your new outfit? You might be surprised to hear this, but the answer is, yes. Everything will be ok. And you might be even better for it. Instead listen to some music. Or practice for your bar or bat mitzvah or talk about something important, or even something unimportant, with your family members. Or commiserate with the person standing next to you, as opposed the friend far away and say, “Oh God, those Jets.”
I’m not saying we should throw our phones in the garbage, or that you are going to see less pictures of my big toothed smile on Instagram and Facebook, but I am saying we should lean on our phones a lot less. Why? Because otherwise fear gnaws at you, persistent agitations creep into your soul. There is a simple, albeit difficult, answer for banishing these fears. Rely less on that device you clutch so tightly in your hand. Rely more on the people by your side. Rely more on the beautiful world that is outside your door. Rely less on all the information, and most especially all those pictures, that come through on your phone. This fear thing is within your grasp. You can get the best of it. Fear can be countered by trust. That is the root of the word for faith—emunah. And trust cannot be fashioned by short, staccato text messages or by smiling, Instagram photos. It is formed when you look into people’s eyes, when you hold them when they are down, or dance with them when they are happy. That is trust. That is true friendship. And that is what will banish all those fears.
The Jewish people have always placed hope before fear. We believe that tomorrow can be better than yesterday. We hope for a better future. At times we placed that belief in a messianic redeemer. At other times we placed that task in our own hands. But we have been steadfast and have always held hope before our eyes. In fact, the great Talmudic sage, Rava, ponders the questions God will ask us when we are welcomed into heaven. After asking, “Were you ethical in your business practices,” God asks, “Tzapita l’yehushuah—did you hope for salvation?” Did you have hope? We will be judged on whether or not we held fast to hope. We will not be judged on whether we called out this enemy or that. We will not even be asked were you a faithful friend. It’s all about hope. It’s all about pushing fear aside and placing hope before our eyes. Judaism is about hope more than fear.
Back to Rebbe Nachman. I only just discovered that his famous aphorism about walking a narrow bridge and not being afraid, the one that I grew up singing at summer camp, was really written by a contemporary rabbi. The eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi actually said the following: “Ha-adam tzaarich laavor et gesher tzaar maod maod. A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. V’haklal v’haikar shelo yitpachaid klal. But the most important rule is: Don’t allow yourself to become afraid.” He did not say as I thought for so many years. “Do not fear.” But instead, “Do not allow yourself to become afraid.” The world, Nachman was even more keenly aware than I thought, is a frightening place, a very, very narrow bridge, but fear is in our hands. Push it aside. Don’t let it take hold. Sing and dance more. Text and Instagram less. Hold on to people more—even strangers. Be inspired and even overwhelmed with awe by the world around you. Fill your heart with hope.
A concluding story. I wish to return to where we began these High Holidays. I look back again to memories of the Holocaust. It is a story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn who like our Annie survived Auschwitz. One winter evening, Gryn’s father called for him to come into a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in awe as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in the day’s miniscule butter ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your butter. You need those calories to survive. We could have even shared the butter on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and said, “My dear son. You and I have seen that it possible to live a very, very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.”
Fear can take hold of our hearts. Our souls can become overwhelmed with all sorts of worries. But we can regain mastery of our hearts. We can fill them with hope. All those Instagram photos of meals, or of smiling faces, do not represent true sustenance. Our true sustenance is hope. It’s actually the only thing that can sustain us and the only thing that can carry us forward. But it cannot be seen. No brand-new iPhone 11 can capture it. It’s hidden, but it’s just as real as all those fears. Fill your soul with hope. Carry it in your heart. Hold it fast. Banish all your fears.
It can begin with a song or even a dance. It can start with a new friend. Hope is our only true sustenance. And that sustenance is within reach. Grab hold. And banish all your fears.