Awe and Fear
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
October 3, 2014 • 10 Tishrei 5775
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
There’s a Jewish tale about a holy rabbi who went on a journey and failed to lock the door of his house. While he was away, a crowd of demons entered and took over his dwelling. When the rabbi returned and opened his door, the demons rushed at him, ready to devour him. The rabbi slammed the door shut, took a deep breath, and prayed. Then he took another deep breath, and opened the door. At once, the demons pounced, but as they reached for the rabbi, he bowed low in acknowledgement of their presence.
An amazing thing happened. Half the demons disappeared. But, the biggest and strongest were still left, and they leapt at the rabbi. He welcomed them and offered them hospitality. Could he give them something to drink? Cook them a meal? At this, the rest of the demons disappeared – all but one who was the largest and fiercest of them all. This demon was not going to be deterred. It opened its jaws, showing the sharpest of teeth, and as the demon came close, the rabbi put his head right inside its mouth. As this happened, the largest demon also disappeared, and the rabbi had his house back.
This is a story about fear.
Why do I tell it this evening? Because, while we often call Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the High Holidays, that name is a bland substitute for their real name in Hebrew -- Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, or Days of Fear.
I grew up culturally Jewish, celebrating home holidays like Passover and Hanukkah. We never went to synagogue. My mother had grown up going to synagogue in New York, and said it was boring, the rabbi was distant and unfriendly, and girls didn't get to do much. She didn’t see any reason to inflict it on us. She, and other friends and relatives, also talked about how depressing and unpleasant Yom Kippur was, with people feeling guilty, beating their breasts, and being afraid that they and their loved ones might not be written into the Book of Life for the New Year. It sounded awful.
Yet here I am, not only at Yom Kippur services, but leading them!
And I’m even speaking about fear, but not the fear of a punishing God deciding who will live and who will die in the year just beginning, like my relatives talked about.
These holidays are named for a different kind of fear. Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe or Days of Fear. Yes, the word that means awe also means fear.
At Rosh Hashanah I invited those present to identify the question at the heart of their lives as they entered the New Year, and to write their questions down, anonymously, to share if they wished. The questions are posted over there, on our Torah of Life. Many of them ask about fear – how can I have less fear, let go of my fear, not get distracted by my fear?
That’s not surprising. If you’ve experienced a calling in your life, if you’ve sensed that you could contribute your gifts to the world, love more deeply, or live more authentically, those realizations have probably been followed by fear. When we uncover a dream, or contemplate taking a step towards living with greater meaning, our vision and sense of possibilities expands, bringing us closer to the unknown. This is, of course, frightening.
So it is natural that, as we reflect on our hopes for the New Year, we also long for our fears to move aside, so they do not block the path we want to take.
It’s a lovely wish, but I have never seen it come true.
Think of perhaps the greatest hero of Jewish tradition -- Moses. He confronted Pharaoh and demanded that he free his slaves. Then Moses led the Israelites, who’d been enslaved for hundreds of years, out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and continued to lead them as they wandered for 40 years in the desert. We might think that he was fearless, or at least able to put his fears aside, so they did not distract or hinder him – but that’s not how it happened.
When Moses experienced God’s call to go free the Israelites, here’s how he responded: “Who am I to do this?” he asked. “What will I say? I’m not eloquent, not a good speaker. Please, send someone else!”
Eventually he took on the challenge, even though he was terrified, and his fear never fully went away. Even at the end of his life he still was not sure that he had succeeded. His mission was to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land, and he died before this happened, not knowing whether or not they would make it, whether or not his life’s work might have been in vain.
I am sure that Moses, like any of us, wanted to be rid of his fears, but this is rarely possible.
So, if our fears are going to remain with us, how do we deal with them? If we yield to them, we may miss life’s greatest possibilities -- of responding to our callings, pursuing our dreams, bringing our gifts into the world, loving deeply. How can we move ahead, even with our fears?
A well known Jewish teaching offers a wise response, but, ironically, I only discovered its wisdom because I didn’t believe it could really mean what it appeared to say. This teaching, which I’ve heard frequently for years, is, “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”
It’s been made into a popular song some of you may recognize: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’fakhed klal.” “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”
These words have always seemed strange to me. If life is full of narrow bridges we must cross to move ahead on our paths – and it is – and we need to get rid of fear to do so, we will be stuck forever.
So I did a little research, and I discovered that Rabbi Nachman, the rabbi from a few hundred years ago who wrote these words, actually said something quite different: “When a person must cross a very narrow bridge, the general idea and the essence is not to frighten yourself at all.”
In other words, there is no point in wishing the fear away, no point in pretending it’s not there. The idea is not to frighten ourselves – not to make the fear bigger than it needs to be, not to let it keep us from moving ahead.
What can we do instead? Let’s return to the rabbi whose house was full of demons. When he discovered them, he closed the door, took a deep breath, offered a prayer, then took another deep breath. He began by moving away from what frightened him, but only briefly, to gather his strength and connect with a larger sense of sacred purpose.
Then he turned to face and even welcome what frightened him. The more he did so, the more his fears fled from the room.
When we cross a narrow bridge, when we enter an unlocked door, when we respond to what calls us to a life of greater authenticity, we experience new and awesome possibilities, and also the risks that come with them.
This brings me to the message I most hope you will remember from what I say this evening. Our fears often point to something worth experiencing, a challenge, a chance to discover something deeper, to grow beyond ourselves. If we yield to fear, increase our fears, or wait for them to leave, we will miss those possibilities. Choosing to turn towards our fears is one of the most difficult things we can do, but that is the choice we often face, and it can open us up to a world of awe and opportunity.
Take a moment now to close your eyes. Ask yourself, what am I called to do, but afraid to do? What possibilities might open up if I moved ahead anyway, accepting my fears?
Would you consider doing this in the coming year? What would support you in doing so?
Now, open your eyes and look around. Look for familiar faces, and unfamiliar faces. Everyone here is on a narrow bridge, that we hope we can cross even with our fears.
We are all in this together, and these Yamim Nora’im, days of awe and of fear, are an invitation to just that – to both the awe and the fear, for we cannot have one without the other. As we move into this New Year, let us recall the rabbi whose story I began with this evening. Like him, let us gather our strength, connect to the sacred possibilities in our lives, take a deep breath, and open the door.