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Fears That Really Matter

We remain grateful that the rabbi and congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville who had gathered for Shabbat morning services were rescued. I am sure that many of us spent anxious hours waiting on Saturday for word of how this might end and were relieved that this hostage crisis did not conclude in tragedy.

Our thoughts now turn to the increasing scourge of antisemitism. Tomorrow evening I will devote my remarks to this plague and how Colleyville fits into a worrisome pattern and a growing worry.

At this moment, I want to focus on the fear many of us are feeling. Rest assured we are redoubling our attention to security at our synagogue. And yet, no matter how many security measures we take, and how many changes we institute, these can never allay the fear that so many of us now feel.

Security is about prudent measures an institution can, and should, take. It is about what steps individuals can choose so that they avoid dangers.

Fear is more a matter of the heart.

When it comes to the heart, I thought I knew it well. I used to think that all I have to do is work to banish fear. I would say to myself, “Just sing.” Singing, even poorly, helps to drive fear away. Or I would think, “Get back on that bicycle and go for a ride on that same road you got hit on.” And even though I rode much more slowly, the fear no longer accompanies me. True, it sometimes finds its way into my thoughts, but pedaling seems to drive it away.

Or in the past, I could be heard saying, “Get on that plane and go to Israel because your love of Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) are more important than all the bombs they are throwing at us.” And away I went. Such sentiments continue to work for me—most of the time. On these occasions, I am (mostly) successful in making sure that my loves overwhelm my fears.

Yesterday, I read the words of Amanda Gorman, the extraordinary young poet who spoke at President Biden’s inauguration. I was surprised to learn that the poet who exhibited so much poise last year, almost did not appear on the dais. She writes:
I’m a firm believer that often terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice, but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. And now more than ever, we have every right to be affected, afflicted, affronted. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself — having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, whom and what we love.
Her words appeared revelatory. “If you’re alive, you’re afraid.” And this week, I would add, “If you’re a Jew, you’re afraid.”

Fear is evidence of love. It is not its opposite. It points to the things we worry about losing. It suggests what we value and hold most dear.

The Torah suggests that fear is the most important motivator for action. It is the primary emotion God calls upon to compel us to observe the commandments. Following the giving of the Ten Commandments, God states: “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of God may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” (Exodus 20)

In the same verse that God tells us not be afraid God also tells us to fear God. It is if to say, there is one fear that should remain in our hearts, always. And that is fear of God.

I have often bristled at these words. I don’t want my faith to be filled with fear. I don’t want to be motivated by fear. Then again, perhaps fearing God is evidence of loving God.

On this day, and after this harrowing weekend, I am going to hold on to that fear. Perhaps yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven, is the answer I have been seeking. It, and it alone, can assuage the trembling heart.