Dealing with Fear

The woman was nervous. They had journeyed so far because of one simple idea, that there was a better place for them— somewhere where she and her husband could make a difference, where they could be needed. Starting a new endeavor was risky. They couldn’t have possibly known the challenges they would face on the way, but they hadn’t anticipated how well they would do either. Success turned up everywhere, and there were more opportunities than they knew what to do with. But there was still something missing for her. They had no children. No succession plan. No next generation. Year after year after year, trying and trying again, praying, she couldn’t conceive. All the hopes and dreams of their lives would end faster than it started. She went through the motions of work, doing her best to give that reassuring smile to those around her. Of course, how could she share this pain with her husband, who did everything he could to hold their community together? Ultimately, they—she—needed a child, and there was only one solution.

A surrogate. Despite the reservations, the disgust at her husband lying with the other, she would ask him to have a child with that one. The surrogate would give birth and nurse the child, but he would be theirs, their legacy safe.

The surrogate gave birth. And her husband, he loved that boy. But, he also loved the surrogate. Was it the way he stole looks when he thought she wasn’t looking? Or the way that surrogate just seemed to hold something over her?

That day the visitors showed up and told her of the good fortune to come, everything changed. Joy just seemed to bloom, and it filled her. She was pregnant. And ten months later, a beautiful baby boy came into the world. She laughed and laughed and laughed. And her husband laughed too. With her.

But the surrogate… her smell was everywhere. She was present when she wasn’t. And that boy. He would never be hers. What was she thinking? And now he was a threat to everyone she loved. Everything they had worked for. He was wild and unruly, dangerous to her baby. The surrogate had no goodness to bring. She was a danger to all the woman loved. They had to go. And her husband agreed to it.

The woman was decent of course. She wasn’t a bad person… They gave the surrogate her due… some snacks for the trip out. And now, her husband and son were safe.

But the surrogate. What about her? Everything she had counted on, and all her hopes for her child were yanked from under her in a single blow, by a man she thought loved her and the lady who wasn’t so bad when she kept to herself. She had no savings, nothing but the measly bread and water the woman had thrust upon them as they left. And a few days out, the surrogate’s boy, so desperately hungry, cried out. She could do nothing but watch as he suffered. She was in such pain that she hid her little boy in the shade of a bush. He would have at least some comfort there from the hot sun, and, she would have some respite from her baby’s cries of pain. She cried. She shook. She prayed. And then the angel came.

Who are these women who have gone through so much? They are none other than Sarah and Hagar, the matriarchs of Judaism and Islam. The little boys were Isaac and Ishmael, and their well-meaning but flawed father, Abraham our patriarch. This is the Rosh Hashanah story we will read tomorrow morning.

Why this for Rosh Hashanah? I might venture to say that Rosh Hashanah is a day of Yirah – a word sometimes translated as reverence, but also as fear. The high holy days are times for confronting the deepest and most painful aspects ourselves, and that includes our fears. And the story of Sarah and Hagar is most definitely a story of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of failure. Of hurt, pain, suffering, and unknown. Fear for ourselves, and fear for those we love most. Fears all too familiar to all of us here today, and fears which while entirely justified, were the first tear in a rift between civilizations.

Most commentators do not fault Sarah for feeling the way she did, nor for acting on these feelings. Her fear and concerns for all she and Abraham had worked for, and especially those for her little Isaac, were entirely legitimate. If Ishmael was indeed endangering her own son’s life, as many commentators hold, she would have absolutely been in the right to send him and his mother packing. One modern commentator, John Skinner, sees things differently. He writes in the International Critical Commentary to Genesis that what Sarah saw was simply “two young children playing together, innocent of the social distinctions that excite[d] Sarah’s maternal jealousy and prompt[ed] her cruel demands.” To Skinner, Sarah’s decision was based in feeling, but not in reality, and her acting on this feeling without bringing a check and balance led to the suffering and near deaths of two other human beings. And if that is the case, I have to wonder why, if Sarah didn’t stop herself, Abraham didn’t say, wait a minute. Stop. I understand how you’re feeling, but maybe sending into the wilderness a little boy and his mother — especially those for whom you have been responsible, maybe it’s not right. Maybe we should take a moment, pause, discuss, and find a solution that works for everyone.

Fear can be a necessary feeling. It is an alert that there might be cause for concern. It is an evolutionary advantage. There may be very real threats out there, and fear alerts and compels us to do something to deal with those threats. Sarah handled her threat by acting, and Hagar handled hers in crying out for help. And both responses to fear elicited a change.

So many of us are filled with very legitimate fears. Some of us fear for our livelihoods; will we have a job that will pay enough for us to make ends meet, and perhaps even enjoy life a little bit? If we lose our jobs, or quit in the search for something better, perhaps even to be creative and start our own business, what will we do about that barely-affordable health insurance? This coming year will we be safe in the comfort of our homes, or might we be underwater, financially, or through the effects of climate change? What will be the state of our health? Will we have enough retirement savings to last us as long as we live? Will the Jewish people be safe? Will our children be safe because they’re part of a visible or invisible minority? And what about those people we don’t really know who seem to show up in the news every day? What about their values that differ from our own? What is it that they want? Do they wish to see our demise and will they change society in their own image?  What about nukes and North Korea? And of course, how could we forget Nazis and the KKK? We recite in Un’taneh Tokef these high holy days, “who by fire, who by water?”; there is much to contemplate, and a lot to fear. And this fear is legitimate, a protective instinct, very much a part of our minds and souls.

But just as we see in Sarah and Hagar’s story, fear can lead to the right decision, or it can bring out the worst in us. Fear can push us to cry out for help at exactly the right time or give us the strength and resolve to remove danger from our midst, but it can also compel us to act rashly, with prejudice and coldness.

Fear has led us to hold unfair and unkind thoughts towards our Muslim neighbors, even when they have reached out and attempted to improve relationships. Fear has led us to hold prejudice against people with different skin colors. It strips us of our natural instincts of compassion, and it enhances our ability to rationalize what ends up being a failure to act in love. We rationalized backing off from Black Lives Matter, because Palestinian supporters got there first. We talk about property values and changing demographics when we’re really thinking something else about our new neighbors. And then we don’t connect.

Fear, my friends, has led us, on both the left and the right, to shy away from ideas themselves— to hide from dialogue with people with whom we disagree, because we no longer believe that the other side will have anything worthwhile to say— their ideas are wrong wrong wrong and will bring harm to this world, which means the ideas and those who hold them deserve a cold shoulder and contempt.

Fear and our responses to it are coming ever closer to breaking this nation apart, and perhaps even fracturing Western democracy. Abe Greenwald, senior editor of Commentary Magazine, wrote in June an article called “Is this the end of the free world?,” where he contemplated whether the freedoms, globalism, and near-universal humanitarian partnership are reaching their end as people turn to more populist, nationalist, and insular agendas, saying “what’s most important is that we look after our own, and you look after yours.” Perhaps they are thinking closely along the lines of one of the Stark family’s famous phrases from Game ofThrones, “when the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” Our lower inclinations tell us that we need to stick together, as if we don’t, who will? If I am not for myself, who am I, as Hillel said. But, I think that reading Ned Stark’s phrase in this light is a misreading. Rarely has a group who has shunned all others survived for long. Hillel’s phrase is incomplete without the second part, “and if I am only for myself, who am I?” The pack we need to belong to, as we fight global challenges of sickness, poverty, hunger, and climate change, is the global pack. We need all the human capital we can to solve the greater problems of the world. We Jews have understood this through the centuries as we’ve survived throughout the global diaspora and in many cases, benefited from surrounding cultures.

Fear must be mitigated and limited, because left unbridled it is likely to bring only the destruction and hate we were trying to stave off in the first place.

The kabbalists understood that evil comes not from outside of God, but from within — from a lack of balance. In a well-functioning system, chesed (compassion), and gevurah (strength, and all that comes with it, including fear) exist alongside each other, keeping the other in check. While essential as part of a team, gevurah let loose without any compassion or love to keeping it penned in, becomes the Sitra Achra — the other side, or what we understand as evil. Too much force without compassion — too much fear and judgment — only leads to evil. The world can only survive if, for every drop of fear in the world, we also bring in another drop of compassion. For every ounce of pain and anger felt, an act of love and compassion, from us or another, must be brought forth. For every human being we reject, we must extend love to at least one more. And for every tribe or family or people or group to whom we have turned our backs, we reach out.

How do we manage this? When fear overwhelms us, or is even just creeping in at the back of our minds, how ought we respond? Our text today offers us two useful examples. First of what not to do, and then, of what to do.

Do not act rashly in our fear, as Sarah did, and then remain silent, without protest for what is right. Imagine if Abraham had paused and reflected, and perhaps sat down in discussion with the women in his life to work out a solution? This, by the way, is a great case for monogamy, but that’s another sermon.

What we ought to do is that very thing that Hagar couldn’t help but do, and that could have served Abraham well. Do cry out. Do deal with your emotions in a way that does not initially affect the fate of another human being. When Hagar cries out, the angel comes forth and says, wait. Ma L’cha? What is happening with you? What are you feeling right now? What is your pain? In other words, pause and be mindful. Because sometimes, in mindfulness, a solution, or at least comfort, will come forth. The text tells us that God opened Hagar’s eyes and she suddenly saw a wellspring, right in front of her. Perhaps it was a miraculous apparition. Or maybe, in her existential fear, she was unable to see the truth right in front of her. How often is it that we miss what’s right in front of us, because our minds are a maelstrom of emotion?

The first step to fixing our fear-plagued life is to take a little bit more time to think. To sleep on it. Think, what is my natural instinct? Does it seem harsh? Will getting what I need in this moment do more harm than good? Will what helps me hurt another? In other words, every time we feel fear guiding our actions, let us think, what would a sense of compassion to someone else demand of me in this very moment?

Here’s a good gauge for determining how we should approach a person we’re feeling a lot of gevurah against. Is there actually proof that this person — not the group from which he comes,  but this individual person— wants to hurt me? Does he want to strip me of rights? Hurt the people I love? If so, respond as needed. But if not, step back, pause, and show that God-given chesed.

Let us use fear to our advantage. Not as a defense, but as a marker, and reminder, that the world needs a little bit more love. When we feel pain, let us look for another in pain. When we feel anger, let us determine the source and minimize it’s damage. And when we feel fear, we master it. We use it when necessary, but we never let it define who we are, or what we do.

Hagar’s angel, saying “Ma L’cha? What’s really going on?” pushes a different tactic. In the moment of heightened emotion, step back, breathe, take stock. And ask for help. Then, the next steps will come.

Perhaps in advice from a loved one. Perhaps in reassurance and succor, or even a tangible solution. And it’s true that there may be circumstances where there are no next steps and where advice cannot help; then we can let the comfort offered by others settle in.

Isn’t that the essence of these high holy days? Stopping and taking stock, in the midst of our intense and busy lives where we barely have a moment to breathe? Maybe we ought to take these holy days as times not just for noting where we have erred and can do better, but for also being mindful of where we are emotionally. What is charging us? What is bringing us fear and anxiety?How are these feelings making us react? Are these reactions productive and helpful? Is there a way I can respond with more mindfulness, faith, and love?

Before going down to rest tonight, I encourage us all to consider the following questions:

1) What is actively frightening you the most this year?

2) How is this fear affecting your behavior towards others?

3) How can you bring more love into the world as a result of your fear?

We might be surprised at what we find. It’s only in confronting, in reflecting, and challenging, that we can break the cycle plaguing this world and create that better place, the one we dream of, where love, good, and holiness reign supreme.

It’s too much to pray that we never be afraid. We are human, after all. So I ask, this Rosh Hashanah, that when fear inevitably finds us all, that we each have the wherewithal to look inwards, and say “Ma L’cha, what’s going on here?” And the answer may very well be that what we need — what we really need — is to reach out to someone in love.

Shana tova.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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