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“Of Fear and Awe”
Erev Yom Kippur 5779
Rabbi Joshua Hillel Strom             

Reverend Dr. Thomas Lane Butts shares the following story:

“Several years ago there was a well-known television circus show that developed a Bengal tiger act. Like the rest of the show, it was done “live” before a large audience. One evening, the tiger trainer went into the cage with several tigers to do a routine performance. The door was locked behind him. The spotlights highlighted the cage, the television cameras moved in close, and the audience watched in suspense as the trainer skillfully put the tigers through their paces. In the middle of the performance, the worst possible fate befell the act: the lights went out! For twenty or thirty long, dark seconds, the trainer was locked in with the tigers. In the darkness they could see him, but he could not see them. A whip and a small kitchen chair seemed meager protection under the circumstances, but he survived, and when the lights came on, he calmly finished the performance.

“In an interview afterward, he was asked how he felt knowing that the tigers could see him but that he could not see them. He first admitted the chilling fear of the situation, but pointed out that the tigers did know that he could not see them. He said, “I just kept cracking my whip and talking to them until the lights came on. And they never knew I could not see them as well as they could see me.”

Terrifying, isn’t it? I can barely begin to imagine, and even that sends shivers down my spine. We’re given the privilege of listening to the story, of knowing there’s an ending. But the trainer didn’t. Not while it was happening to him. How could he know when the lights would come back on, if ever? How long could he have kept up the charade of being able to see them? What if the lights didn’t come back on quickly enough? What did that feel like? What would you do? Would you display such poise and composure, such calmness and alacrity of thought, to process and work through your fear, using what you know in both your mind and your heart to carry you through? Or would the hand of fear seize you, hold you firmly in its icy grip, leaving you completely at the mercy of the tigers in the dark?      

I’m sure we’d all like to believe we would have done as the trainer did. I’m sure we’d all like to picture ourselves personifying grace under incredible pressure, “as cool as the other side of the pillow,” as they say. I know I would. But who’s to say for sure? Who really knows for certain what they will do the moment that shrouding darkness, that specter of fear, is staring them right in the face?

Fear is real. It is constantly at play in our lives, in our everyday interactions. It is pervasive in the country and world in which we live. And while perhaps it feels as though that is so now more than ever, the truth is that our struggle with fear has been with us for as long as there has been an “us.” For well we know that fear lies somewhere within the core, the evolutionary hard-wiring, of every human being, and actually, every creature on earth. 

But the experience of fear, while universally and vividly shared by everyone who has ever lived, is so often intangible, so difficult to articulate without using the word itself. In his 2015 book entitled Brain Snacks, psychologist Dr. Karl Albrecht offers a self-described “simple and useful definition of fear,” which is as follows: “an anxious feeling caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience.” He goes on to say, “Medical experts tell us that the anxious feeling we get when we’re afraid is a standardized biological reaction. It’s pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we’re afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, or getting our taxes audited.”

And here’s the key: “Fear,” Albrecht writes, “like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding – if we choose to accept it – of our psychobiological status.”

For Albrecht, all of our so-called fears and phobias, real or imagined, arise from five basic fears: extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and what he calls ego-death. Essentially, when you turn all of that around, what it seems we need as human beings is to feel independent and, to a certain extent, in control of what happens to us; to be valued, or at least accepted, for what we offer our community or social network; and we need to feel, need to believe, that we are who we think and hope we are – good, capable, talented people, worthy of and open to the love of others.     

And if I may be so bold as to suggest, admittedly without having studied much psychology, that perhaps all of them, each of these five basic fears, are tied to one single, fundamental fear: the fear of the unknown. The unknown of what will happen to us, of what will become of or befall those we love, over the weeks and months and years, over the minutes and seconds to come. Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that what terrifies us? Isn’t that what scares the daylight out of us, leaving us in the dark with the tigers?        

It is that fear of the unknown, of a future forever uncertain and unclear, no matter how much wisdom we have gained or how much we have accomplished, that lies at the center of the Un’taneh tokef prayer. That is why, I believe, we recite this haunting passage in all its inconvenient and uncomfortable truths, on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I used to be in the camp of people who wondered if this prayer has outlived its own usefulness and relevance. No longer. The more I grapple with this difficult passage, the more I see how frighteningly relevant it actually is.   

“Who by fire” might not sound so archaic to the folks in California suffering the worst wildfires we’ve ever seen, to farmers and food companies trying to make a living. “Who by water” might resonate with communities getting slammed, even as we speak, by Hurricane Florence. “Who by famine” probably doesn’t ring hollow for the tens of millions of Americans living with food insecurity, never knowing for sure where their next meal is coming from. “Who by thirst” might be strikingly relevant to communities who have no clean water to drink after the summer storms and floods contaminated their water supplies. And I’m guessing that “Who by wild beast” wouldn’t feel devoid of meaning to our tiger trainer who survived the darkness.        

But behind the presenting fears expressed in the text, beyond the stark confrontation with our mortality of “who shall live and who shall die,” are the fearful questions that are somehow more concrete, somehow less abstract; questions we seem to ask ourselves constantly, perhaps daily, hoping the repetition might eventually prompt a response. Who will have rest and who will wander. Who will be at peace and who will be troubled. Who will be tranquil and who will be tormented. Who will be humbled, and who exalted. Who will become rich and who will be impoverished.

 These are the questions that cut through everything, the ones we’re afraid to ask, and even more frightened to hear the answers: what if tomorrow is the last day on earth for someone I love? What if this weekend sees the sudden turning of those I believed to be my friends against me? What if next week is when I’m let go from my work? What happens if my firm, my company, goes out of business, and I suddenly don’t know how I will provide for my family? What if, at some point in the unknown future, everything I ever knew and wanted to believe about myself, about who I am at my very essence, in my heart of hearts, is exposed as a façade or mirage? Stripped down to the nakedness of our souls, knowing that any and all of our deepest fears, our worst nightmares, are all terrifyingly possible, how then can we move forward in our daily lives? What, then, is the way to live in that tension between what is known and what is not, between what is within our control and what is beyond it?

Many of you know how much I love the Hebrew language, and that is for so many reasons, though that is for another day. And as I feel strongly that Hebrew is the key that unlocks so many of the treasures of our tradition, here too, it has something profound to teach us about our fears.

The closest word in Hebrew to the kind of fear we’ve been talking about is pachadPachad is the fear that freezes us up, that paralyzes us and prevents us from actualizing our full potential, from being our best, and who we’re meant to be. If fear is, as Dr. Albrecht said, information that offers us the opportunity for a deeper understanding of ourselves, pachad is what happens when that information, that first recognition of fear, threatens to consume us entirely, taking us completely out of the realm of functionality. Pachad then, ironically, is when the fear of losing ourselves, of losing our identity, becomes so overwhelming and unbearable that that is precisely what happens in the end.

Thankfully, Hebrew offers us an antidote to pachad. And that is yir’ah. While yir’ah does not translate so simply into English, I would define it as reverence and awe mixed together in equal parts, sprinkled with a dose of healthy fear. Awe at the vastness of the universe, the miracles and wonders of nature, of the sunsets and rainbows and Grand Canyons and beautiful mysteries offered us by life. Reverence for God as the Creator, the Architect of it all, the One who fashioned us into being for some divine reason, breathed life into us for some purpose beyond our comprehension. And yes, a sense of fear. But unlike pachad, the fear within yir’ah acknowledges that one’s existence and well-being are almost entirely subject to the whim of elements beyond our control. While somewhat imperfect, the image of God as a parent who is loving and compassionate, yet who can and does mete out justice and punishment, is perhaps the best way to contextualize the healthy fear within yir’ah.

That is why the Un’taneh tokef, this impossible prayer, these words we hate to utter but can’t bring ourselves to eliminate from our liturgy, begins with the words, ‘Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, ki hu nora v’ayom, for it is awesome and full of dread.” Not “awesome” like “awesome!” but filled with awe, with reverence. That is why these are called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. That is why Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, says that the one who studies Torah for its own sake “is clothed in humility and yir’ah, reverence, a foundation which prepares the person to be righteous and pious, upright and trustworthy.” That is what the great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said that “awe is the root of faith.”                          

And this is why a prayer I will admit to you I did not know before exploring this new prayerbook almost leapt off the page upon my discovering it. It is the first of a trio added to the High Holy Day liturgy, and in the English translation, it reads like this:

“And so, in Your holiness,
give all creation the gift of awe.
Turn our fear to reverence;
let us be witnesses of wonder –
perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.
We bow to the sovereignty of Your strength,
the primacy of Your power.
We yearn for connection with all that lives,
doing Your will with wholeness of heart.
Awe-inspiring is Your creation,
all-encompassing Your transcendent name.”  

Nelson Mandela once said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Turning our pachad into yir’ah is exactly that conquest of fear, and then converting it from an obstacle that inhibits us, to a source of divine inspiration. “Judaism,” friend and colleague Steve Kushner recently suggested, “wants us to embrace yir’ah as a necessary tool to grow as individuals, and grow closer to God as well.” And I like that a lot, the idea that yir’ah, awe-filled reverence, is the path to a life lived in balance and harmony, where we recognize what frightens us without allowing it to overwhelm us.  

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav famously said, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.” V’ha-ikar, “The most important part,” however, is this: lo l’fached klal, “to not be fearful or afraid,” to not let pachad completely subsume you. The most important part is to not let fear freeze us in place; to convert the pachad to yir’ah, to move from fear to awe and reverence, to embracing the curiosities and the unknown of our lives and the world around us. This quote, these prayers, Yom Kippur, and indeed, the heart of Jewish tradition says, yes, this pachad, this fear is real, even if it’s a psychic reality more than a physical one; and yes, there are things that naturally will trigger fear in your heart; but you can’t let it paralyze you, you can’t let it hold you back from moving forward, from doing cheshbon hanefesh, the scouring and accounting of our souls, on the path towards the self-improvement of t’shuvah. But when we acknowledge the pachad, when we name it and confront it head-on, it is then, and only then, that we can channel it into yir’ah, into an awe-filled reverence that gives our days deeper meaning and, God willing, greater fulfillment in our lives.

“And so, in Your holiness,
give all creation the gift of awe.
Turn our fear to reverence;
let us be witnesses of wonder –
perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.”

Kein y’hi ratzon.

May this be God’s will.

May this be our doing.


Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784