What are we all so afraid of?
About 40 years ago, in the mid 1970s, a psychologist named Roger Hart did a study on the playing behaviours of children in a small town in Vermont. He documented their activities; he interviewed all 86 children in the town about the places where they played. And he discovered that those children had an incredible amount of freedom. They essentially played wherever they wanted; they traveled together through neighbourhoods and even to the edges of the city. In his words, “they had the run of the town.”
That was then. Thirty-something years later, in the mid 2000s, the same psychologist went back to the same town, to learn about the next generation – the children of the children he had originally studied. He asked similar questions and looked for similar behaviours. And he documented a completely different picture. A generation ago, kids had roamed all over creation, but now they had almost no radius of freedom. Their parents knew where they were at all times. And far from traveling to the edges of town, many of them hardly even left their own property by themselves. They just weren’t allowed to.
Something has shifted in our society over the last 40 years, and this story is a part of a larger picture. People are more afraid, more worried, more anxious. When the residents of that town were interviewed about what had changed, they cited the increased threat of violent crime toward their children. But statistically, there is no increased threat of violent crime – not in that town and not in Canada and not in North America as a whole. There is only the fear of increased threat.
What are we all so afraid of?
Most of us don’t live our lives in constant fear of violent crime. Most of us aren’t afraid to leave our own property. But we do live with fear – maybe now more than ever before.
Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes about the scary world that we live in:
This world can appear so unpredictable sometimes. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires….. Your life can suddenly be overturned by illness or accident or financial setback.
And whether we know it or not, all of that fear is affecting us. Diagnoses of anxiety are on the rise. Hospitalizations for eating disorders in Canada increased by a third in the last 25 years. Some 43% of North Americans take a mood-altering medication on a regular basis. We are living with stress in a way that our grandparents never did and in a way that their grandparents never even imagined.
What if I get sick?
What if the stock market takes a dive?
What if my grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish?
What if my failings at work are discovered?
The funny thing is, we seem to be reasonably good at dealing with the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation. But when you live a life of anxiety, it’s the little fears that get in the way.
The fear of failure that keeps us from taking risks.
The fear of rejection that stops us from reaching out to form community.
The fear of uselessness that keeps us running, working, filling our lives with things we need to get done.
Like those children who never venture beyond the safety of their own yards, our fears – large or small – have the ability to overwhelm our thinking. As we make our way through life, they separate us from our best selves.
On Yom Kippur, we work to become our best selves. And Jewish tradition has long been aware that our fears are a barrier. That’s part of why we’re here. During these ten days, we come together to pray, to repent, to confront the pieces of ourselves that we are most afraid of. And to find the strength we need to live in a scary world.
The prayers for this season address that challenge. It’s traditional during the month of Elul to read Psalm 27 twice every day. It says:
יְהֹוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא – When God is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
יְהֹוָה מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָֽד: – When God is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
It is a central theme of the High Holy Days that when we are in a supportive religious community, we have less to be afraid of. When we are surrounded by others and surrounded by God, we can find the strength to confront what may come our way.
Part of confronting our fears is separating between what we can and cannot control.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the true story of a man and woman he met in the back row of an airplane. They were a wealthy and influential couple, on their way to New York for a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. The King and Queen of Thailand, they said, would also be at the event. Rabbi Kushner wanted to know why a couple like that would travel in the back row of the plane! Why not first class? The husband replied, “My wife is more comfortable in the last row. She’s read about planes that have crashed, but she’s never heard about a plane being rear-ended.”
There’s only so much that we can be in control of.
Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer that’s often used in 12-step programs:
God, grant me the courage to change what can be changed
The serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Those words are not Jewish in origin, but they do find expression in the origin of the Jewish story. Early on in the book of Genesis, Avram – who is not yet called Avraham – fights a brutal war against 5 kings in Canaan. This was before Avram had entered into covenant with God, before he had fathered any sons, before he had really secured his place as ancestor of a great nation. It was a moment of great uncertainty in Avram’s life.
And just then, God comes to him and says:
אַל־תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָֽנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ – “Do not be afraid, Avram, I am a shield to you.(Genesis 15:1)
It was an invitation by God to enter into covenant. An invitation for Avram to put aside his fears and be in relationship with the Divine.
It doesn’t seem like a very reasonable request: In the scariest moment of your life….Al tira – just don’t be afraid. The Rabbis want to understand how God can ask this. So they analyze Avram’s fears. Nachmanides, the mystical Spanish commentator, says that there are two things Avram was afraid of in that moment:
- He was afraid that the kings might rise back up against him, and drag him back into war.
- He was afraid that he might someday die childless, since that he had no sons.
Those were very real fears. Either of those things really could have happened, and Avraham had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t. But – and this, I believe is Nachmanides’ point – he also had no way of knowing that they would.
What is Avraham afraid of? One thing from the past, and one from the future. A war that he’s already survived, and a childless death that may or may not come someday. But what’s in front of him is an eternal covenant with God.
When we live our lives paralyzed by fear of the past and the future, we miss the blessings of the present. If the patriarch had remained focused on what he was afraid of, he would have missed the opportunity to enter into covenant.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive; our eyes can still see the beautiful sky; our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
When the Torah says “Al tira – Do not be afraid,” it doesn’t mean that the things we’re afraid of aren’t real. But it does mean that we can strive to see the blessings of the present amidst the anxieties of the future. And it means that we can have faith in ourselves that when challenges do come our way, we will have the strength to weather them.
Earlier this month, we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Much has been made over the years of the special courage and strength of the “Greatest Generation,” of their ability to weather fear and terror, and to come out stronger on the other side.
One famous example is found in the residents of wartime London, England, who lived through the German Blitz. Between September 1940 and May 1941, London was bombed 71 times. It was a campaign that should have paralyzed the city and its residents with fear. But it didn’t. The more London was bombed, the more its residents were emboldened. They spent time outdoors. They drank in pubs and attended cricket matches. An entire network of wartime psychiatric clinics had to close down because their they weren’t being used! (NEED REF)
The Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy has explained this by saying that Londoners were learning, one bombing at a time, that they could survive and thrive in those frightening circumstances. In fact, he writes that after a while, it gave them a “feeling of excitement with the flavour of invulnerability.” The more they lived with danger, the less fear they had. Because they knew from experience that they as a people were capable of making it through.
Most of us don’t live our lives under attack, but there is something to the idea that experiencing what we’re afraid of actually makes us stronger, more confident, maybe even more capable.
Losing a job is an awful experience, but it can also be a learning opportunity and a chance to reinvent yourself.
When a loved one passes away, our world is shattered. But life does go on, and in fact, our work on earth becomes even more important.
When our worst fears become reality, we often discover strength we didn’t know we had.
Judaism embraces the idea that our fears can motivate us rather than paralyzing us. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes that “All knowledge of the universe begins in the fear of death.”
All knowledge. All learning. All accomplishing exists because we know that we will die someday.
If we weren’t afraid, says Rosenzweig, then we would have no reason to get anything done. No reason to learn anything or to teach anything or to pass anything on. Our own mortality – and our profound awareness of it – is what makes us most creative and most human.
In that sense, we are at our most human on the High Holy Days. During these Yamim Nora’im – these Days of Awe and Fear and Dread, we are most aware of just how big the universe is and how small we are within it.
Our prayerbook reminds us of this when it says: Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom – Let us declare the holiness of this day, which is frightfully awesome and full of dread.
In Hebrew there are two words for “fear.” One is pachad, which means mortal fear. The other is yirah. That’s the root of nora, of Yamim Nora’im. It means reverence or awe. It means the inspired awareness that there is something larger than me.
This summer, I spent a week as faculty at Camp George, our regional Reform Jewish camp. I got to watch Jewish kids enjoying the great outdoors. They hike, they sail, they watch sunsets and count stars. At one program, we asked the youngest campers – 7 to 9 year olds –to describe their “Yirah Moments” – the moments when they felt a sense of awe or amazement at the world. One camper described looking up at the stars at night. Another talked about looking out over the lake during Shabbat services.
Many of us have had similar experiences – looking at a starry sky or witnessing the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. There is a certain fear that comes along with the knowledge that we are so unbelievably small. But the Yom Kippur prayerbook reminds us that small doesn’t mean insignificant, and it doesn’t mean powerless.
In fact, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which begins with fear and dread, ends by empowering us with responsibility: Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – Repentence, prayer and charity. These are the ways that we effect change in the world. These are the ways that we respond as Jews to what frightens and overwhelms us.
Repentance, prayer and charity make a difference because they stem from humility. Because they are born in the notion that the only constructive human response to a frightening world is to try to repair it.
Once, a little girl was walking along the beach after a storm, and she noticed a starfish that had been washed up on shore, So she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean, saving its life. A few steps later, she came upon another starfish, and she did the same. She made her way down the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. A man came up to her, and said, “Little girl, do you realize how long this beach is? Do you realize that there are thousands of starfish stranded on the shore. You’ll never get to all of them. How can this possibly make a difference? The little girl looked at him. Then she picked up a starfish and threw it into the ocean. She answered, “It made a difference to that one.”
It is perhaps the most deeply held Jewish belief that every one of us has the power to make a difference. No matter who we are, or how small we feel, or what we are afraid of.
Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom– Let us declare the holiness of this day.
This day of fear and dread.
This day or awe and inspiration.
This day that reminds us that we are so small and yet so powerful, so fearful and yet so capable.
And when we rise from our seats at the end of Yom Kippur, may it be with the motivation to go out into the world. To confront our fears; to challenge ourselves; to do the hard work of Tikkun Hanefesh – repairing our souls and Tikkun Olam – repairing our world.
 Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, p. 209.
 Conquering Fear, Harold Kushner, pp. 12-13.
 David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 129.