Today I’m going to talk to you about fear. (How’s that for taking the bull by the horns)
In August, as part of my “let’s all stay for musaf” campaign, I facilitated two sessions, after Shabbat morning services, on that special culminating part of the morning High Holiday liturgy. We spent some time discussing the prayer of the hazzan–the cantor or service leader–recited following the Torah reading, just as musaf is about to begin. It’s called “Hinneni he’ani mi’ma’as,” which I translate as “Here I am, the one who is poor in deeds.” It’s the same passage I wrote about in my High Holiday booklet message, which I read aloud on Rosh Hashanah eve.
In the August sessions, I talked about the affect of the prayer, which comes through with particular force when you hear it chanted in the urgent traditional melody. It’s full of what we call in Hebrew yirah–awe, fear and trembling. The hazzan is saying: it’s a heavy task to be designated to stand in prayer before the God of Israel, and I am duly afraid of it.
One of the things I said, at the time, was that this mode of spirituality–one characterized by this kind of trepidation, stands in contrast to the more contemporary, warmer and fuzzier forms, such as you might find in a self-help manual, or on the mat in a Yoga studio. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But our contemporary spiritual predilections seem more often to point us in the direction of things that promise to make us feel good, and fear isn’t the kind of thing that generally makes you feel good.
Unless you are a very special kind of person, or we’re talking about horror movies.
I think for many people who grew up religious, myself included, the elimination of the august and overwhelming sense of awe and trembling is actually what made spirituality re-approachable after a time of alienation–the fact that I could access a sense of presence and well-being through gentler modalities, such as meditation and the aforementioned Yoga, both of which remain very important to me.
Also, I think that fear is something we seek spiritual refuge from, so it’s a little disconcerting to turn around and find our tradition placing fear itself at the core of sacred experience.
But there it is.
We saw it very clearly in today’s Torah reading, which suggested that at the core of the Jewish sacred is a divinity which is life-threatening, and can only be approached by the high priest in just the right way, lest all heaven break loose.
I think it’s worth exploring this fear, especially as we are now almost done celebrating what we call the yamim nora’im, a phrase which, though we tend to translate it as the Days of Awe–though not the “Awesome Days” I’ve noticed–might just as accurately be rendered: the days of yirah–the days of sacred fear. And especially as we live in a time that, despite our smiles, is inherently fear-laden.
So, let’s ask the question: what is this yirah, this fear, at the heart of being Jewish?
The critique of exclusively warm and fuzzy spirituality is not unique to me or to this moment. There’s one early 20th century example that I’m particularly drawn to, which came from the pen of Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the author of the philosophical novel, “As a Driven Leaf.” Steinberg, whose brief life was lived at a time when the upward mobility of American Jews was accelerating, shared these choice words in his excellent work, “Basic Judaism”:
“There are in all communions some individuals who are made unhappy by any reference to the fear of God. [These individuals] are sentimentalists, wishful thinkers, or cowards–persons either ignorant of the nature of things, or too timid to face them…No one who sees reality as it is, bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.” (P65)
Steinberg, who was a modernist with a real sympathy for tradition, argued that anyone who takes account of the world as it is cannot help but acknowledge that fear, or “dread” as he puts it, is a natural response to a great deal of it. His “sentimentalist” is someone who uses religion as just another mechanism for denying the reality of the fearful. This is a form of cowardice, he says. It’s a kind of make believe that wears a smiley face and saves terror for the wee hours of the night. It smothers fear in a sphere of private consciousness, judging it to be an unacceptable emotion, something that must be concealed for the sake of social and personal hygiene.
The sentimentalist, in fact, responds to the reality of life by creating an effigy of a God who is only loving, and is only related to through loving. The sentimentalist, he says, suffices with a candy god, and foreswears any religious language that might enable us to speak productively of the darkness.
Steinberg seems to be suggesting, instead, that fear has a place in religious practice–that we should see it as something to be affirmed, rather than escaped. It is a spiritual power in its own right. Through yirah, through sacred fear, we recognize the awesomeness of God, or of reality itself–manifesting in scopes of space and time so vast relative to our own frames and spans that even a dim awareness of this magnitude fills us with an intense awe before the incomprehensible contours, or contourlessness, of what is real.
But embracing yirah also allows us to acknowledge that perhaps the strongest moments in our spiritual lives, in addition to those that are characterized by overwhelming love, are those that have to do with our experience of intense fear. We are created not just by the pulsation of our desire but by the whisper, sometimes the scream, of our terror, and so we must define ourselves not just by what we like, but by how we cope with, and live in relationship to, that which frightens us.
For example, I will admit that at least on a daily basis I find that I am grappling in my mind with the implications of climate change. To ignore the reality of this fear seems ignoble and cowardly, but it can sometimes sit in the middle of my head so forcefully that I must find a way to work with it, constantly, in order to remain able to live a good life, and bless the day.
I start to empathize with the high priest, who engages in an elaborate dance with a sacred altar, in the midst of his tabernacle, that is not so kind.
This enshrined sense of fear, this yirah, can certainly be motivating–worshipping with it, in this limited sense, can keep me focused on what I feel I must do in response to the eventualities that it hurts to envision. At the same time, on an existential level, I come to realize that, while denial or compartmentalization may be good in a pinch, it is ultimately more grounding to be conscious: to declare holy and fearful that which I can neither love nor master, and to hold my soul open and responsive to it.
Maybe you understand these dynamics, even if, for you, the haunting comes in other forms.
But I want to take this in another direction now, by reintroducing a character I’ve already spoken about once over the course of this day, almost as if he were my imaginary friend. Last night I told you about Jonah, and his time in the belly of the whale. But you probably know that wasn’t the end of the story. It wasn’t even the end of his fear.
Jonah’s fear is the mystery that motivates the entirety of the little book that bears his name. God calls him to go to Nineveh, to prophesy “repentance or doom” to the big city, but instead he runs away. While the book doesn’t say he was afraid, I’m not so sure what other conclusion we are supposed to draw from such a swift departure in the wrong direction.
But what’s equally puzzling is that he doesn’t particularly seem like the fearful sort. He sleeps as calmly as you please in the hold of a tossing ship as a storm rages above decks. He is almost blasé when he says to the sailors: oh, this storm is my fault, just throw me overboard and the sun will shine again. He sings, as I said last night, in the belly of the big fish, and then he walks into Nineveh, like a gunslinger in a spaghetti western, and speaks truth to power.
No, he’s not an abject coward. He just has a “trigger issue”. And if we read carefully, we find that he actually tells us what it is.
Back over a decade ago, when I was still only semi-pro, I actually gave a High Holiday d’var Torah in my childhood synagogue about the nature of Jonah’s fear. At the time, I said something that felt plausible and clever, even though I wasn’t sure I knew what I meant by it. That doesn’t always stop me from saying things. But now I think I get it.
What I suggested is that what Jonah fears most of all isn’t danger, so much as the reality of divine lovingkindness, what we call in Hebrew hesed. I based this on a reading of a verse in the final chapter, something he says after he’s gone to Nineveh and prompted the people to repent. It’s a surprising turn of events. He becomes the most successful prophet in the lore of the Hebrew scriptures–turning the destiny of a huge city from doom to renewal–and yet he’s unhappy about it. It would be a little more accurate to say he has a tantrum. He cries out to God, and I paraphrase but the essence is intact: “This is why I didn’t want to come, because I can’t bear your hesed! I would have been much happier if you had just destroyed them all.”
In response, the God of this book, which I think is among the best of the versions of god the Bible offers us, gives Jonah a little object lesson. God causes a gourd to grow up on a long vine, to shelter Jonah in the midst of the desert. Jonah is happy. God causes a worm to gnaw the plant till it withers, and Jonah is exposed to the sun, and miserable. He throws another fit, and God says: look at yourself! You care so much about this little thing and yet you wanted me to destroy a whole city! You are all fine and good when ensconced in your shelters–the hold of the ship, the belly of the fish, the shade of the gourd–but when I ask you to stand naked against the rawness of the world and show enduring compassion, you can’t bear it!
And why is this? Because Jonah’s fear isn’t sacred fear, at all. It’s just a garden-variety aversion. He has no relationship to it. He has no altar built in the core of his tabernacle, in his holy of holies, where he is invited to dance with it. He has no way of naming the world that is beyond his wishes. He wants Nineveh to burn, because the thought that it might teeter on in its wounded imperfection, and he might be called upon to face it once again, is not bearable. He is, in this sense, the epitome of Steinberg’s sentimentalist, the “wishful thinker, or coward–persons either ignorant of the nature of things, or too timid to face them.”
And, it turns out, because he has no yirah, he has no hesed either.
But can’t we empathize with him a little bit? What a terrible thought–that the world will never be perfect! We sing joyously in the psalm–ki l’olam hasdo–for God’s hesed is eternal. But maybe this is just because there will never come a day when it isn’t needed. We are told, that like the task of Sisyphus, work in the service of God is something we can never give up on, even though it will never be finished.
We find Jonah, at the end of his book, reeling from this truth that the God of Israel has shown him, without knowing what he will do next.
But that’s what makes it such a good book, and a perfect light read for the waning hours of the last day of the festival of sacred fear. We are not presented with the solution to Jonah’s conundrum, firstly, because there isn’t one, and, secondly, because we, ourselves, as Jews, are meant to live it forward. We are meant to find a way to push past our aversions into those valences of feeling and experience that writhe with the world’s suffering, and find some way to hold them in our consciousness, so that we can respond with the hesed that has no choice but to be eternal.
And so we envision a sacred core, an altar, that must be approached with the fear and trembling of the high priest or the musaf hazzan, because that is the only fitting way to honor its reality–a reality which, as Steinberg says, in words that actually seem a little paltry relative to the truth they seek for, is “bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting.”
This is a heavy task, indeed. It’s not surprising that the hazzan says: here I am, the one who is poor in deeds–the one who isn’t quite sure if she can handle it and is hoping for just a little grace to carry her through. But I want to leave you with the two things that give me some comfort as I endeavor to undertake this service in my own life.
The first is the famous saying of Rebbe Nahman, which we usually hear rendered as: the whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to fear. On the face of it, this would seem to contradict everything I’m saying–one of our great traditional teachers claiming that fear should find no harbor in our spirits. But it turns out he’s been mistranslated all these years–a simple verb being substituted for one that in the Hebrew was reflexive.
He wasn’t saying–do not fear. He was saying do not make yourself excessively afraid. Meaning: do not respond to the awesome reality of the world beyond your control, the realm of yirah, by setting up a feedback loop in your soul such that you can contemplate nothing else. Put it on your altar but do not make it your god.
Remember that part of the reason it seems overwhelming is that we have failed to tend our relationship with it. Do so, but also leave plenty of space for the vital joy that the same Rebbe often declared to be the antidote to despair.
And my final thought is this: we have something that Jonah lacked. He was a solitary man standing up against the gates of a metropolis. But we have each other. If yirah is the fear at the heart of being Jewish, then the silver lining is that being Jewish is something we were never meant to do alone.