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Rosh Hashanah 2016 Facing Fear
Many people forget that there was an earlier bombing at the world trade center in 1993. The fear and anxiety with which we live now, which shrouded our summer in darkness, really began back then before 9/11. During one of those years between 1993 and 1999 I was still living in New York City. I had traveled downtown to South Street Seaport. Just a few blocks up from the southernmost tip of the Manhattan and a few blocks over from the World Trade Centers, it had been transformed by the same couple who transformed the Inner Harbor here in Baltimore, into a waterfront mall and promenade. My favorite part was rows of deck chairs looking out to the East River giving you the sense of being on an ocean liner at sea. It was the perfect place for an afternoon with a book and a Sony Walkman.
On my way to the subway to get home I walked through the mall to people watch when I heard screaming and saw people running towards me. I didn’t know what was happening, there were no police or security guards around so I changed direction and followed the crowds. I ran into the clothing store in front of me and about a dozen of us looked for a place to hide. We crouched down behind the blouses and the jackets. As the noise and tumult seemed to be getting closer the woman who was hiding closest to me looked at me and we both realized that silk blouses would provide little in the way of protection. Too frightened to move though, we shrank down, making ourselves as small as possible. And we alternately held our breath and panted like dogs as we waited for whatever was coming towards us. That’s the part that stays with me, the feeling of my heart beating high in my throat, waiting. The paralyzing fear that kept me rooted behind silk blouses, next to a stranger who was shaking.
At some point, the New York police came through to tell us that there had been a minor gang disturbance and everything was just fine. I smiled grimly at the woman and walked out in the direction of the Trade Center to head home.
I imagine that you can call to mind an incident that awakens terror in your mind – losing a child at an amusement park, watching a loved one collapse, receiving a phone call at 2 in the morning. It is like being in jail, unable to move, unable to act, unable to react.
That fear is a feeling we have had, a place in which we have found ourselves at different points in our lives and lately more and more frequently. We hear loud noises and we are afraid, we see fire trucks speeding by and we are afraid, we visit a big city and we are afraid. We are living in a nation, in a world consumed by fear.
Half a dozen times this summer alone, Americans did what I did many years ago – panicked at the sound of a loud bang or the sight of people running and assumed that they were present for a tragedy in the making. A loud noise, mistaken for gunfire leads to rumors spread at blazing speed in person and on social media, sets off a panic that has people running for their lives, and police struggling to figure out what is happening and restore order. August 28 at Los Angeles International Airport. August 13 at a mall in Raleigh North Carolina. August 14 at Kennedy Airport. August 20 at a mall in Michigan. August 25 at a mall in Orlando.
Who can blame us? With terror attacks this summer in Tel Aviv, Brussels, Istanbul, Paris, Nice, Orlando and elsewhere it is understandable that we now feel ourselves vulnerable to mass violence. And even when someone tells us or even shows us that 85% of what we are afraid of never occurs, or that violence in the United States is as low as it has ever been, our fear does not abate. [“Shooting Shows a Nation Quick to Fear the Worst,” The New York Times, August 29, 2016] As Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The above, including my own, were incidents of unfounded fear, panic based only on the possibility of something terrible happening. Recently, the terror attacks of distant places in the world and the country have hit closer to home in New York and New Jersey. Fear creeps ever closer.
An 11 year old girl in Chelsea, interviewed after the bomb explosions in New York City and New Jersey two weeks ago, said with wisdom beyond her years, “Since we weren’t alive for 9/11, we’ve never been alive in a time when we aren’t scared. I’ve learned to accept that this stuff is going to happen.” [After Blast, New Yorkers Examine Themselves for Psychological Shrapnel” The New York Times, September 18, 2016]
From the mouth of babes – we are all afraid of something.
We cannot rid ourselves of what make us afraid and although sometimes it feels like all we have between us and our fear is a very narrow bridge, we are not powerless. If I am fearful, te only way I can change my fear is by doing something. To change how you feel, you have to change how you act. The social workers call that leading with behavior. The rabbis call it the High Holidays, yamim noraim, days of yir’ah, days of awesome fear.
Yir’ah is the Jewish response to living with fear and uncertainty. It involves two actions: staring down the fear, and transforming it.
The eleven year old girl from Chelsea modeled staring down her fear. The reporter happened upon her twelve hours after the blast because, though afraid to leave her apartment, she did so to walk her dog. She was not doing something ill-advised or dangerous. She got beyond the paralysis that fear strikes in so many of us and went back to her routine, albeit changed. It’s not that she was too young to be scared. She was quivering and she had heard reports of another bomb which she knew was a possibility. But she did not allow the psychological shrapnel to change the way she interacted with the world around her.
The Rabbis teach that when you are afraid, even when you see nothing, the remedy for that fear is to say the Shema. [Megillah 3a] It’s not that the Shema is a magical incantation, rather what Ravina is saying is that the antidote to fear, is belief in someone or something larger than that fear. It is so easy to be seduced by the fear, to be cowed by it. But when we stare down that fear in the context of the guiding forces of our lives and the values of faith and humanity by which we live, we are able to successfully meet the fear head on.
A good thing, because it is fear that leads us to action. Like having a health scare and being motivated to make positive changes to one’s life because of that fear. On these days we speak of our fear of aging, of our bad behavior being discovered, of being abandoned, of dying. And it is our hope, and our tradition’s intention, that we not be paralyzed by these fears but be awed by them into taking action.
Transforming the fear is the harder part of the task ahead of us. This is what we begin to do next week on Yom Kippur. We will go from staring death in the face, wearing funeral shrouds and playacting our deaths to transforming that fear into a renewed life for the year ahead. We take that fear and use it to inspire serious exploration and growth and a change in direction and hard choices.
When we are fearful, our sense of self is challenged. So ultimately we must each ask ourselves what am I prepared to do to transform the fear that pervades my life? What changes can I make in how I act so that I might change how I feel?
I want to be able to raise my children without fear that they will be hurt or killed. I want to be able to raise children who do not have to hide under their school desks as part of an active shooter drill. I want to visit cities around the world and take the subways and experience their attractions without frantically searching for an exit route just in case something terrible happens. But the reality of the world I live in, that we live in, is not changing any time soon. The world is not going to change, so we have to change; we have to transform the way we interact with the world around us.
The Psalm of the season, Psalm 27, was quoted Friday morning at Shimon Peres’ funeral – what do I fear, whom shall I dread? When evil people attack me to devour my flesh … God enfold me in the secret recesses of the Sukkah. Despite enemies arrayed against me I trust in goodness in the land of the living …be strong, take courage and keep hope ever in front of you.
At the highest point in our magnificent new playground a famous Jewish quotation is etched. It is from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav – the whole world is a very, narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid. With all due respect to Rabbi Nahman, like FDR, he got it wrong. This is the world we live in, how can we not be afraid? Rather the most important thing is what we do with that fear. We acknowledge it, we stare it down and we transform it into hope, love, and faith to propel us forward across the bridges and valleys into what lies ahead.
Rabbi Wechsler has touched the lives of many members of our community through her intellect, warmth, compassion and commitment to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. As the first woman to serve as rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, her impact and accomplishments are demonstrated in our successful b’nei mitzvah, adult learning programs, gemilut hasadim efforts, and many learning and life cycle experiences. Her communal work includes service on the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Grant Review Committee for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, and the Teacher Certification group of the Center for Jewish Education. She has published sermons and opinion articles in The American Rabbi, The Orchard, and the New York Jewish Week. Debi received her rabbinic ordination, as well as an M.A., from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where she also served on the Board of Overseers of the Rabbinical School.