All recent reports indicate that Americans are more fearful now than at any time since the days after 9/11. That is disconcerting.
Recently, a friend told me he drove to a theater in Miami to see a film. He said he had trouble focusing on the film because he was gripped by fear. My response was the following: I understand the fear. Bad things have happened in theaters in this country. But I think we are obligated to do honest assessments of our situation. And the reality is that the danger of driving on I95 to Miami is greater than the danger of sitting in a theater.
But fear doesn’t work that way. There is such a thing as a healthy degree of fear. And that is the fear that arises as a result of being confronted by danger. “The healthy dose” will motivate us to take precautions, behave properly and see to our safety.
Over the years I have been to many films in Jerusalem theaters. Israel does security properly. People are appropriately checked at the doors. Often there are metal detectors. And a population is attentive to suspicious objects and people.
Yet, fear can also be disabling. Fear can lead to behaviors that are neurotic and even more destructive. Overwhelming fear can enter into the realm of illness. Worst of all, fear can create paranoia and hatred. And then it leads to irrational behaviors. We’re sadly seeing that now. Islamic terror has lead people to call for and support racist policy. The capacity to separate the perpetrators and criminals from an entire population has led to more suspicion, hatred and violence. And this is dangerous to the very fabric of a free nation. It places us all at risk.
We as Jews have suffered from prejudices and perceptions that what one does is an indictment of an entire people. I think most hatred grows out of fear. And I’ve noticed that fearful people cannot be loving. Listen to the voices around us.
Muslim voices are being heard now. They are calling for denouncement of radical beliefs and behaviors. They point to a different Islam then the one that perpetuates terror and violence. And at the same time they are expressing their concerns about expressions of xenophobia, hatred and violence.
And although appropriate fear can be protective, excessive fear disables and prohibits one from critical listening and understanding. And that is dangerous. There are midrashim in our tradition that point to the issue of Jacob’s fear of Esau. And they all point to the fact that it is only after Jacob is willing to confront and engage and actually live next door, that he overcomes his fear. He has to first understand his own power.
Some are consumed by fear of their health. Others consumed by fear of aging. And too many are consumed by fears of “the other.” We must allow our rational minds to determine our behaviors. So that means we appropriately address risk, we take care of ourselves and we live as wisely as possible. In the parshah we see that Joseph did not become irrational in the face of frightening situations and challenging people, rather he remained a cool and critical respondent.
There’s an amazingly appropriate prayer found after the Aleinu in traditional siddurim. To paraphrase it reads: Don’t be afraid of terror or the destruction of enemies. Prepare wisely, speak your mind because God is with us…you will endure because you are the creation of God.
A prominent thinker once said that all fears are motivated by the fear of death. If that’s true then we are all challenged to understand that although we will all die, we have a choice as to how we want to live while we have life. And, we can choose to live with love and faith and goodness….and God.
This is Hannukah. We have shown that with light, wisdom and meaning we survived thousands of years. Let’s be wise. Let’s understand the power of our choices. We must live limiting risk but facing reality. We must live morally and ethically. And let’s choose to live life as beautifully as we can, with respect for the dignity of others and a realization of the preciousness of our time here. Then we will live with more gratitude and less fear. We can’t let fear win.
Chag Urim Sameach,
See you in shul,
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This Shabbat, join us forMindfulness, Meditation, and Mussar with Suzanne Stier
Location: Gussie Roth Room @ 9:15
Come learn mindfulness meditation, practice different mindfulness techniques, and use the ancient spiritual practice of Mussar and the weekly Parasha as vehicles for meditation. No prior experience needed.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l