Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Rosh Hashanah Day Two Sermon

I was in Middle School when I discovered the wonders and horrors of one of the United States’ most successful authors, Stephen King. As a teenager, he scarred the heck out of me, and I loved every page of it. You name it, Cujo, Carrie, the Stand, Pet Cemetery, and Christine were some of my early favorites. As an aside, I only recently learned from our own Susan Caminez that King’s books are not biographies about Maine. The one book that captured my imagination more than any other was the one simply entitled “It.” “It” is the tale of an ephemeral evil plaguing the fictional town of Derry, Maine often in the guise of a clown named Pennywise.

There was a particular scene in the opening of the book involving a young boy, a rain storm, a paper boat, and a sewer grate that created such a sense of fear in me, that I refused to stand at my bus stop for weeks because it too was on a sewer grate.

“It,” which was released in 1986, and it was adapted as a television miniseries in 1990 starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. “It” was then recently made into a two-part feature film, the first of which was released in September of last year, raking in over $700 million in ticket sales.

Now truth be told, since Middle School, I have not really been into horror novels. I also haven’t seen too many horror movies since high school. However, since “It” came on cable recently, I decided to DVR it, though I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps I recorded it simply out of a desire to reconnect with my younger self.

However, after a few minutes of watching the movie, I realized I needed to turn it off. Not because I was afraid of sewer grates any longer, but because, as a father, I couldn’t watch something bad happen to a child. The movie is a work of complete fiction, but the opening scene raised so many unsettling possibilities in my mind. It took my imagination down paths I simply did not wish to go. In my mind, I was not seeing my younger self next to that sewer grate, but instead, I was imagining one of my boys. And that made me deeply unsettled, if not afraid.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the very notions of fear lately. Not only do we live in a climate where we are bombarded with messages to keep us afraid, but even our old Gates of Repentance was designed, in part, with fear in mind. The theology of our old machzor was very much based on the idea that we should engage in teshuvah because we should be afraid of the repercussions if we do nothing.

Fear is a curious thing. According to Psychology Today, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger — if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats.”[1] According to the science of evolution, this is a fundamental human trait we inherited from our ancestors living in the savannah. Back then, we had a biological imperative to be afraid of the apex predators who were bigger, stronger, and faster than us.

However, as we, as human beings, have become the apex predator, our fears have transformed. This all began when we started to domesticate our environment. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “…the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their view of life. We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us.”[2] What this means, for our purposes, is that we gave up a life of specific fears, like predators, to generalized fears like crop failures, too little rain, or too much rain, and the possibility of theoretical external threats coming to steal all of our hard work.

Our practical fears have evolved into a generalized state of anxiety. But our minds were simply not designed to deal with this new amorphous type of fear. Being in a regular state of anxiety can have detrimental effects on our thoughts, our relationships, and on our bodies. Specific fears can motivate, general fears can paralyze.

According to the great modern Jewish theologian, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, “in sum, a small dose of fear keeps us alert and alive, but an overdose can leave us perpetually tense, emotionally closed, and paralyzed to the point of inaction. If we could take a pill to banish fear, or if we could have a small part of our brain removed so that we would never feel afraid, it would be a serious mistake. Our goal should not be the total absence of fear but the mastery of fear, being the master of our emotions rather than their slave. Our goal should be to recognize legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do.”[3]

However, in times of great uncertainly, it can be very difficult to ascertain the difference between general fears and specific fears, as it often seems like we should be afraid of just about everything, if you would believe the news. So how do we go about fulfilling the mission described above by Rabbi Kushner to recognize “legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do?”

Today we read from the very beginning of Beresheet. The reason for this reading is because Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the creation of the world. However, one could argue that Beresheet is not about the creation of the world, but instead is about the creation of Shabbat, the first Divinely ordained holiday, the day of rest.

Beresheet is also about one of the overarching themes in the Torah, which is God creating a sense of order out of chaos. As we read through the seven days of creation, there comes a rhyme and reason for everything. Day and night are separated. The moon and the sun are separated. The waters and the earth are separated. Animals are set apart, each unto their own kind. And humans are planted in the middle of all of this. Balance is achieved, at least for a while, until the second story of creation with Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But why were they expelled? In Genesis it teaches, “So God Eternal took the man, placing him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. God Eternal then commanded the man, saying, “You may eat all you like of every tree in the garden – but the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or as others translate – the Tree of All knowledge) you may not eat, for the moment you eat of it you shall surely die.”[4]

However, as we know, after eating the fruit, most likely a fig, Adam and Eve did not die. Instead, what the Torah is teaching is that they in the words of Kushner, “would realize, in a way no other creature does, that they were fated one day to die.”[5] Or to put another way, eating of the forbidden fruit, was not an act of evil, but instead an unintentional act that created a sense of mortality and fear of death that has imbued our humanity ever since.

Before that point, according to the Torah, because humans had no knowledge, they had no fear. So the question simply is: how can we rebalance ourselves with the knowledge of fear? One way is simply to give into it, and the other is to recognize that fear is a result of imbalance and react in ways to try to bring about balance once again like in the Garden of Eden.

In Psalm 27:1 we read, “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

God is the strength of my life; of what shall I be afraid? …

Though a host encamp against me, my heart will have no fear”[6]

Upon initial reading of this, we might think our tradition is saying, “have faith in God, and you shall never fear.”

However, as Kushner explains, “When the psalmist tells us three times in the first three verses of this psalm that he is not afraid, the message I hear is that he is afraid, but he is working at mastering his fears. It is like when your young child tells you, “I’m not afraid of big dogs anymore.” He is really saying that they still frighten him, but he is working on his fears rather than giving in to them or hiding from them. And where does the psalmist get the courage to stand up against enemies and other dangers? It comes from faith in God, not a God who protects him from all trouble and danger but a God who stands with him in time of trouble and danger so that he never has to feel he is facing his problems alone. To the psalmist, God is the source of light, strength, and salvation.”[7]

Here at last, we begin to find the answer to our question about our fears. Yes, we know the world is not always safe. Yes, we know the world can be capricious and bad things can and will happen. Yes, we know there are bad actors who may be seeking to do harm to us and or the ones we love. And yes, we know there are people in positions of power making decisions that we not only fundamentally disagree with, but we are fearful that they can gravely impact our lives, our communities, and the greater world as well.

But what we cannot do, is live in fear. So how do we go about doing this? Perhaps we can find key suggestions from another Rabbi in our tradition, Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steinberg, one of the great progressive thinkers of the early 20th century who is most well-known for his book As A Driven Leaf, also had a collection of writings entitled: A Believing Jew. In that collection he wrote an essay entitled, “The Fear of Life.”

As Kushner explains about Steinberg’s writings, “we are all too familiar with the fear of death. But Steinberg suggested … that there is a parallel fear of life. Only human beings are afraid of life, because only human beings can imagine the future. He wrote, ‘We fear for our children because we know what strange paths they may wander. We are timorous about our health because we can picture ourselves in the grip of malignant disease.’ And we are afraid of the future because it may lead to failure, hardship and pain. Because we yearn for so much, life can disappoint us in so many ways. Because there are people in our world whom we care about, life can hurt us. How can we get over our fear of life?

Steinberg’s first recommendation is that we face reality without illusions. Life may feel more pleasant, the future may seem more hopeful, if we deny reality, but no one can live courageously if his (or her) life is based on pretense and denial…”[8] So we have to accept life as it is and not hide in a corner, curled up in a ball muttering to ourselves that everything is fine.

“The second ingredient in Steinberg’s prescription for curing us of the fear of life is a sense of duty. Do what you have to do even if it scares you. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face [and] you are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along…”[9] We do this every time we stand in defiance of fear. We do this every time we stand for a purpose. We do this every time we stand for a cause that is just and right. Imagine the worst possible thing that can happen when we take this course of action, and the reality is, most of the time, it doesn’t. As we find, our imagined fears are often much greater than the real outcomes. But we won’t know that unless you do what you have to do, even if it scares you.

“Steinberg’s third step in meeting fear with courage is rooted in the realization that we don’t have to do this alone. One of (Kushner’s) … favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”[10] Why do we gather together every year on the Yamim Noraiim, the High Holiest of Days, where our tradition compels us to be filled with awe, and with? It does this to remind us that we are, in fact, not alone. We are a part of a larger community that is there for one another to help each other to both conquer fear and overcome the sources of those fears. Together we can find support and allies to fight the source of those fears.

As Kushner goes on, “And finally, there is the resource of faith, not the belief that God is a Santa Claus figure who will give us what we want if we have been good, not the illusion that all stories have happy endings, but the stubborn conviction that we are strong enough to survive misfortune, rejection, and failure.”[11] Faith in God, in many ways, is expressed as faith in ourselves.

Yes, we are living in scary times. That being said, giving into fear only makes the times scarier. Perhaps then we need to shut off our televisions from time to time or get off of social media and remind ourselves to reach deep and find the faith to overcome our fears so that we may become agents of change in the world. It may be part of our animal nature to be fearful, but it is our humanity that can help us to overcome it. As our prophet Micah stated in his vision of the world as it ought to be, “They shall sit every person under their vine and under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”[12]

Until that day comes, let us live in the way Mark Twain once famously described when it comes to fear, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” With that in mind, as we set out on this New Year, may we all be inspired to live a little bit more courageously.

We pray, Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, or master of ourselves, help us to overcome our fears in order to help bring about the world You envisioned through Your prophet Micah, where all are at peace, where there is no more suffering, and where none are afraid. And until that day comes, help give us the strength and courage to know that our fears will be not what define us, but instead they will be what drives us.

Cayn Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s Will.

L’shana Tova,

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff


[2] Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, New York, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 81

[3] Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 11

[4] Genesis 2:15-17

[5] Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 143

[6] Psalm 27: 1,3

[7] Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 162

[8] Ibid., pgs. 169-170

[9] Ibid., pgs. 170-171

[10] Ibid., pg. 171

[11] Ibid., pg. 171-172

[12] Micah 4:4