From Fear to Faith

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Shanah Tovah. What a beautiful sight this gathering is, as always, as we enter the New Year together — the tenth New Year I have the honor to celebrate with you, my KKBE family; a blessing that means more to me than I can possibly put into words.

As we look back on the past year, 5779 was difficult to be sure. A year characterized by angry rhetoric and bitter divides. By devastating gun violence and shocking acts of domestic terrorism. A little less than a year ago, “the single deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history” rocked Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, sending reverberations felt around the country and the world. [1] Six months later, another shooter devastated the worshipping community gathered for the last day of Passover in Poway, CA. When I take stock of the past year, the theme that stands out more than anything is fear. 

And far be it from me to stand up here and tell you not to be afraid. I’m scared, too.

An article published just after the attack in Poway stated what many had been feeling at the time: That synagogues can no longer have open door policies. That the world is an inherently dangerous place. Caution, vigilance, and security are the watchwords of the day in nearly every circle now. “If you see something, say something,” our collective mantra. “Better safe than sorry,” we tell each other, and ourselves. Fear has made so many of us in this country reticent to take risks, especially when it comes to people.

Yet, friends, this too we must acknowledge: Fear is also tearing us apart. I don’t just mean in the polarization of our society, where politicians persist in playing upon our deepest anxieties: That because of certain people, or a certain group of people, our lives will be endangered. Our freedoms will be compromised. That — whether its money or land or jobs — there’s just not enough to go around. Beyond this stoking of fear that continues to split our communities, we feel fear creating fissures and tension at the very core of our beings. Especially in that part of our souls that finds its home here, in the Jewish community. 

Because, while fear is leading us to distrust the stranger, we know from Jewish tradition: That Abraham is venerated for not just welcoming unknown visitors, but running to do so. That every Passover Seder begins by inviting all who are hungry, all who are in need, to come and take a seat at our tables. That we have worked for generations to try to ensure our synagogues, our schools, our homes, and our nation are open, welcome, inclusive tents.

The tension these values cause, like our fear, is real. Some say that times are simply different. The nature of the threats we face today suggests that, at least temporarily, we must err on the side of an abundance of caution. Yet are these times truly exceptional? It’s not as though our values of inclusivity and openness developed during some ideal heyday in Jewish history. When were our wellbeing and safety so secure? When didn’t we have good reason to be fearful of others? There has always been at least some measure of risk for Jews and the Jewish community — in our public gatherings; in our private gatherings; even, at times, in the simple fact of being a Jew. And yet welcoming the stranger; opening our doors; loving our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves — this is what we have been taught and upheld, davka, in the very worst of times. These values weren’t “pipe dream” mitzvot for “someday,” some idealized time and place when we finally reach the Promised Land, every man and woman under their vine and fig tree. No, these values were born in the wilderness, with attackers at the rear, doubt surrounding us on all sides, and the unknown stretching as far as the eye could see.

So, yes, the fear we feel today is credible and real. And, as a result, it’s potentially all-consuming. Our challenge is how to live with fear, fight through it, and take a chance on humanity despite it. 

But how?

There’s a popular song based on a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov: 

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal.

[When you need to cross a very narrow bridge, and] the whole world is a very narrow bridge, the important thing is not to be afraid at all.

At least that’s how the song is sung, but it turns out the original Hebrew written by Rebbe Nachman is slightly different. Instead of “lo l’fached klal — do not be afraid at all,” he wrote “lo yitpacheid klal — do not frighten yourself at all.” [2]

We cannot, nor should we, stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is all rosy and good. Not everyone we meet or who crosses our paths has good intentions, and it is important to be aware and alert. But when we feel fear in the presence of a person we don’t know, a stranger, it’s also worth asking ourselves: Where is my fear coming from? Is it possibly from a story I’m telling myself? If so, then might we be making ourselves afraid?

This summer, my family was walking through downtown Asheville at 9:30 on a weeknight. If you’ve spent time in Asheville, then you know there can sometimes be an uncomfortable, edgy vibe downtown. This particular evening, there were a number of people out and about, and more than a few were disheveled, mumbling to themselves, or saying things to no one in particular much more loudly than that. I could see the fear in my son’s eyes and was keenly aware of the story he was telling himself — that these people were drunk, on drugs, mentally ill. I was thinking the same thoughts myself, and held his hand, tightly. But this story we were telling ourselves was just a story. And stories, like people, can be dangerous, too. As the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so critically teaches: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” And there was more than one story to tell ourselves this night, too. More to notice. More of which to be aware. There were many people out and about that evening, including families wheeling strollers. Restaurants were open with wait staff and patrons entering and leaving. A police officer was patrolling the block, telling individuals they could not sit or lie on the ground, but he didn’t detain anyone. These people were not a threat.

I remembered that night the lesson Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, wanted to teach her daughter: “I want her to understand an essential distinction in a world of strangers,” she wrote, “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous.” There is always more than one story to know about people. Appreciating nuance helps to quell fear. 

“Fear is easier than risk,” she continues. “There’s no question: We have to choose whom to trust. The world is full of dangers, and a few of them arrive in the form of an unfamiliar face. We have to navigate that world safely somehow.” But here’s the thing: “We can make these choices with attention and grace. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a one-dimensional world, deprived of honest human connections and [the surprising] interruptions that awaken us.” [3]

I’ve done that plenty this past year. My personal confessions on Yom Kippur will begin with the conversations I didn’t have, the interactions I wasn’t willing to venture, because it felt easier and safer to let a stranger remain a stranger. And I regret them as much for what I lost as for how my actions might have made someone else feel. Because you know what were some of the greatest highlights for me in 5779? 

The total stranger at Vickery’s with whom we had some conversation, and then, after he saw us blowing out candles for my son’s birthday, spontaneously bought our entire dinner. 

I think of the tall, tattoo-covered man at a candidate’s town hall who graciously gave me the precious front-row space up against the railing he had gotten there early to snag. Half an hour of conversation later revealed he was the absolute gentlest of souls and, as it turns out, Jewish, as well. In fact, if he’s here this morning — thank you for that incredible act of kindness. 

I think of the cashier at Trader Joe’s one day who, when he saw my husband, a total stranger, wearing a suit, asked why he was all dressed up. Aaron told him he was coming from a funeral. The young man looked at him and said: “I’m so sorry. Do you want talk about it?” “It’s OK,” Aaron said. “I was the officiant; the man was old. It was sad, but not tragic.” But how sweet is that — that this young man really noticed a stranger and cared? 

And I think of the many stories I’ve heard — in hospitals, over coffee, sitting in people’s homes — stories that have surprised me, uplifted me, but most importantly connected me with someone previously a stranger. Stories that have taught me how great the rewards can be when we risk reaching out to others.

The entire city of Hendersonville took a risk on reaching out to others this summer — and quite a considerable risk at that. [4] The Western North Carolina city of 14,000 residents decided to plan their first Pride event this past June. Due to concerns of how it would be received by the community, questions of how many would or wouldn’t show up, and especially out of a legitimate fear of drawing attention from the Klan, the event they planned wasn’t a big parade or festival — they planned a simple potluck picnic.

The week before the event, Mayor Barbara Volk proclaimed June 15th Pride Day in Hendersonville. When she did, dozens of protestors showed up to City Hall and every member of the City Council publicly opposed the proclamation. But organizer Laura Bannister pushed ahead. When a group gathered to pray the devil away from the picnic space where the event would take place and they received their first death threat, someone was dispatched to check the trash cans for bombs, but they didn’t cancel. “I just hope no one brings guns,” said Ms. Bannister. “That worries me the most.” “How often do you think about that?” asked an interviewer. Ms. Bannister chuckled as she responded: “About ten times an hour.”

No guns showed up on June 15th. Nor did a single protestor. Instead, 500 people came and kept coming, as did the food and every variety of rainbow, all day long. Several people who were interviewed were in tears. Far from the realization of their greatest fears, the sense of hope and love they discovered that day was palpable as people talked with one another, sat down together, and openly discussed the most important issues in their lives.

Jerry Miller, an elderly gentleman, was there as an ally: “We found out our son was gay,” he said, “and my wife and I basically went in the closet ’cause I was the pastor of a Baptist church at that time. We didn’t feel safe letting anyone know we had a gay son. I myself struggled with the religious issue, and I prayed that God would change my son someday. And I was doing that one day when I heard this voice say: ‘Jerry, you know I don’t work that way.’ God didn’t change him, he changed me.”

Imagine what meeting people like Jerry meant to Hector Trejo. Hector is a bakery clerk at Publix, who brought a beautiful cake he had decorated all over with different multi-colored Pride flags and song lyrics. “I was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago for trying to overdose,” he said, when interviewed. “I was there for six days. And, to me, seeing all of this right now, just seeing everyone so happy, is amazing.”

Friends, we cannot let our fears get the best of us, immobilize us, impede us from reaching out to others. Of course, we should remain aware and alert to the dangers people can present — but we have to allow space for the goodness of humanity to shine, too. And sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith.

Wanda Bullard, one of the founders of The Moth podcast, told a story about her father who had served his small town as alderman and fire commissioner for many years. When his family and loved ones finally convinced him to retire, the police department, in an act of good will, cobbled together some small roles to keep him occupied and engaged. 

One day he got to his job down at the police department, and discovered, to his amazement, they had a prisoner! It was a small town; this was most unusual. And that morning her father really didn’t have much to do. He’d wander back and talk to this young man, and when he went out for lunch he brought a couple hamburgers back for him. Well, by one or two o’clock, he had made a decision about this young man, and he always trusted his instincts when it came to people. He had decided that in spite of being long-haired—way down to here, which her father hated—that this was a decent young man, so he’d see if he could help him.

“Why are you still here?” he asked. “You seem like a nice young man. Won’t anybody come get you out of jail?” And the young man told him: “Well, I had a little too much to drink last night. They arrested me for drunken disorder and here I am.” 

“Well, what would it take to get you out?” 

“I have to pay a $200 fine,” he answered. 

“Can’t your family pay the $200?” 

The young man said: “Well, I think if I could talk to my father face-to-face I could get the $200 from him, but I don’t know how he’s going to react to a collect call from the Boonville jail.”

Well, her dad mulled this over a little while, and then asked: “Do you think if I turned you loose, you could go find your father, get $200, and come back?” 

Now remember: Her father’s only duty that afternoon was operating the police radio that talked back and forth with the cars. That’s it! 

So the young man said: “Well, see, I’m from Corinth, Mississippi, and that’s about twenty miles north of Boonville. You know they impounded my car. I think I could get the money from my dad, but I’ve got no way to get up there.” 

Her dad said: “What would you say if I gave you your car?” And he scrounged around in the desk drawers, found the key, and not only did he release the prisoner, over whom he had no authority whatsoever, he gave him a getaway car. And, as the kid left, her father said: “Now, son, I believe if I could borrow $200 from my daddy, I’d borrow another five to get me a darn haircut.”

At about four o’clock the policemen started coming back to change shifts, and when they went to the back to check on the prisoner, they discovered, to their dismay, that they didn’t have one. “Mr. George,” they asked, “what happened to the prisoner?” Her father looked up from his little bit of paperwork, and said, “Oh yeah. I turned him loose.”

“You did what?” they asked.

“Turned him loose.”

“Mr. George, why did you do that?”

“Well, he just seemed like a nice young man, and he’ll be back in a little while with his $200.”

They waited around, and 4:30 came and went, 5:00, and of course no young man returned. At about 5:15, they tried to get her dad to go home because his shift ended at five. But he was kind of stoic, and said: “No, I’m gonna wait around until he comes back.” 

“Might be kind of a long wait,” one of them mumbled. But her dad didn’t get discouraged.

Then, all of a sudden, the door opened, and a young man walked in—plain cut, shaven, short hair—walked up to the counter, and said: “Excuse me, I’d like to pay my fine.” They didn’t recognize him, so one of the officers walked to the counter and said: “What fine is that you’re talking about?”

He said: “Well, you guys arrested me last night—locked me up. I owe $200, and I’m here to pay it,” and he started counting out $20 bills. When he got to two hundred, the police didn’t say a word. They took out the book, wrote him a receipt, thanked him. And the young man started to leave. 

When he got to the door to go out, he turned around and—almost as if he knew what the situation was like there in that office—said, “Oh, by the way, Mr. Bullard, I’m sorry I was late getting back, but I had to wait in line at the barbershop.” [5]

If, as Jewish tradition teaches, the sin of taking a life, one life, is tantamount to destroying the whole world, what are the consequences of dismissing a life, even just one? Could this young man be an exception? Of course. But, what if he’s not? What if this young man is the general rule of thumb, and the others — the ones who give humanity a bad rap — what if they’re the exceptions? What if, instead of being afraid of being taken or even harmed, we feared missing an opportunity to allow our optimism in humanity to be proven right? What would the world look like if this were the fear that guided our interactions, if this were the fear that kept us up at night?

That’s a tall order, and these are difficult times. And I don’t know of any sure way to walk what sometimes seems like a very narrow bridge. But I do know this: Hope, love, and faith must claim more space in our hearts than fear.

Nine out of ten Jewish services end with the singing of Adon Olam. We sang it last night; we’ll do so again this morning. Sometimes we include all of the stanzas, sometimes only a selection, but we always finish with the last lines: “B’yado afkid ruchi — My soul and body are entrusted to Your care, O God, both when I sleep and when I rise. God is mine; I have no fear — Adonai li, v’lo ira.” The last words we utter nearly every time we worship together — the message we carry with us for the next day, the next week, the next challenge, this coming year: “Have no fear.” 

When fears multiply and danger threatens,

may God’s blessing of shalom sustain and uphold us.

O Source of calm and comfort, 

lighten our burdens and quiet our worries.

As we enter the New Year may we do so 

with strength restored and hope renewed.

Revive our faith in humanity

even as we seek to revive our faith in You. [6]

 

 

[1] Anti-Defamation League (ADL), April 20, 2019.

[2] My gratitude to Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman for uncovering this teaching.

[3] When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, Kio Stark (2016).

[4] “Going Home for My Small Town’s First LGBTQ Pride,” Monique Laborde, Scalawag Magazine, July 1, 2019.

[5] “The Small Town Prisoner,” Wanda Bullard, The Moth, adapted.

[6] Inspired by Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 43.

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