September 24, 2018
Sometimes I like to hang out with trees.
It’s apparently a trendy “thing” now, to hang out with trees.
But many of us have been doing it for our whole lives without knowing it’s a “thing.”
I like to hang out with trees because it feels good, and because sometimes it helps me to listen with more than just my ears.
Once, years ago, while I sat quietly in a forest in Central Massachusetts, a thought came to me so clearly it was as if I heard it said out loud: Love everyone, yourself included. That is work enough for a lifetime.
At the time, I think I most needed to hear the “yourself included” part. Lately, though, I find that the “love everyone” message is more compelling.
For several years now, as I do my annual reflection in preparation for the high holidays, I have found myself circling back in one way or another to the question: What can one person do? So much is happening in the world that threatens our values and in some cases our lives and the lives of those we care about. What can one person do?
This year, particularly as a result of my activist work, I hear that message of the forest coming back to me as an answer to this question. What can one person do? Love everyone.
And that brings me full circle back to the slogan I made up back in 2010, for our first Rosh Hashanah as a newly merged congregation: “Love more… Learn more… Fix what’s broken.” A good, simple motto for what I thought our community ought to value. Love More, Learn More, Fix What’s Broken.
Now, eight years later, I realize that Love More and Fix What’s Broken are inseparable.
I’ve been training as a social justice community organizer for the past couple of years, and the primary lesson I am learning is that loving relationships are at the heart of any successful effort to fix what’s broken.
Loving relationships. I am learning this lesson because it is highlighted in every community organizing training program. But much more importantly, I am learning this lesson through experience. In the past couple of years I have met and grown to love some young people who have rocked my world. People who listen deeply, and love fiercely, and dream big. People who inspire me and give me courage and joy. People who are so different from me that you might think we could not possibly have anything in common. But we have more in common than we could ever have imagined.
Love More and Fix What’s Broken are inseparable.
Sadly, there are many obstacles in our culture to experiencing this kind of love:
We are chronically “crazy busy,” and often chronically exhausted.
We live physically isolated from one another, especially from people who are different from us.
Most of us are addicted to our phones and devices and screens, major sinkholes of time and energy;
many of us are addicted to more dangerous substances or habits as well.
And we have been acculturated to say “I’m fine, thanks” when we are suffering.
Add to this the anxiety, depression, despair, doubts about self-worth, and insecurity that are the hallmarks of the American psycho-spiritual profile in the 21st century, and it is no surprise that loving one another is a daunting challenge.
Yet underlying all the anxiety, depression, despair, doubt, and insecurity is our yearning to love and be loved. Our pure, life-affirming, soulful yearning for love. And the hatred and violence we witness daily? Hatred and violence are what happens when this innate yearning for love is warped, stifled, or shut down.
What is love? I started asking this question on Rosh Hashanah.The question has occupied poets, philosophers, dreamers and song-writers throughout human history. Try to define it and you run smack into one of the most profound mysteries of the human experience.
But I want to define it, because the love we yearn for is not about “chemistry,” or infatuation, or lust, or obsession. The love we yearn for is not even about “liking.”
What is love?
Love is not a feeling.
Love is not an abstract concept.
Love is a verb.
Love is something we do.
Some of you might recall that I say pretty much the same thing about what it means to be Jewish -- that being Jewish is about what we do, not so much about what we believe. It is not a coincidence that I am saying it again in this context. Judaism has much to teach us about love, and most of it has to do with love as action not feeling.
So now here is my working definition of love:
Love is radically accepting, and nurturing the growth of, a human being.
The “radically accepting” emerges from a deep trust, an orientation of the heart that values the preciousness of each person. I use the word radical for its original meaning, of or having to do with roots. But it is also radical in the sense of being profoundly counter-cultural in our society. Radically accepting.
And the nurturing refers to all that we do to manifest that radical acceptance. I may feel a loving trust, but if I don’t do anything then it isn’t love.
Love is radically accepting, and nurturing the growth of, a human being.
When I say that I love every one of your children, on a fundamental level I am not talking about how I feel. I am talking about the energy I put into deeply listening to and supporting and encouraging and nurturing every one of your children. Regardless of their behavior, regardless of their mood, regardless of their appearance.
It is a commitment of energy that is intentionally counter-cultural, in a culture that is so harshly judgmental of behavior, mood, and appearance.
It is a commitment that I have made to love every one of you as well, a commitment that I am reaffirming today. This is not a commitment that is inherent in the role of rabbi. There may be rabbis who would not explicitly name love as a central task in their job description. But I do.
Now that I’ve insisted that love is something we do, let me backtrack a little and admit that there is also an emotional component, but not in the way that our culture usually portrays love. The emotional component is joy.
Now how astonishing would it be if every one of us made that commitment to radical love?
In order to love one another, we would need to find the will to get around all the obstacles, the forces that drain our soul energy: the forces of busy-ness, exhaustion, isolation, addiction, anxiety, depression, despair, and doubt. A daunting challenge.
But it can be done. Love More and Fix What’s Broken are inseparable.
What would it take to love more?
It begins with listening. “True listening is love in action.” [M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled]
We can listen to understand one another’s experiences. And we can listen at the soul level, which happens not just with our ears.
True listening is an expression of compassion, because our heart is called to resonate with the heart of the person we are listening to.
And true listening is an expression of humility, because we are called to set aside our own ego needs, opinions, and habits of the mind.
What else would it take to love more?
Active love requires other forms of giving besides the giving of attention.
In Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving -- a book that I first read in my twenties and which profoundly influenced the trajectory of my life -- Fromm describes what a person is doing when they are loving another person:
He gives... of that which is alive in him, he gives… of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness -- of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him…. Giving is in itself exquisite joy.
What else would it take to love more?
It would also take a willingness to let someone listen to us.
A willingness to be vulnerable.
A willingness to be broken and not have it all together.
A willingness to be loved.
How many times have you had the experience of reaching out to someone who is suffering only to be told, “It’s okay, I’m fine”? It happens to me all the time. I know that I have been guilty of doing the same thing at times. It’s worth reflecting on why we do that, and what we might do to push back against that cultural norm.
What else would it take to love more? I invite you to reflect on how you would answer this question. What could each of us do to take on the challenge to fix what’s broken in this world by loving more?
And remember this:
To love in this way is also to risk disappointment and hurt. To love does not insure that the beloved will grow in the direction that we had hoped or dreamed. To love is to stay mindful of our fantasies and expectations, and to let them go, again, and again, and again.
Love everyone, yourself included. That is work enough for a lifetime.
And by committing to love, we can do our part to fix what’s broken in this crazy-making world -- generating more joy in the process.
What would it take for you to love more, right now?
And how might you support one another in that intention?
Permit me to rant for a few minutes. I so rarely do.
One of the most hypocritical, destructive lies ever perpetuated in human history is the lie that Christianity is the religion of love, in contrast to Judaism which is supposedly a religion of dry “legalism.”
From the fourth century, when Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and turned it into a lethal weapon -- from then until the present day, the Christian Empire has wrought horrific destruction and suffering throughout the world.
That this arrogant, power-driven empire has had the chutzpah to claim love as its banner would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening.
We Jews have known only too well what it means to be in the path of the destructive force of the Christian Empire, a power structure which at its core, by definition, is anti-Jewish.
Christianity has masqueraded as the religion of love, while systematically seeking power and control over non-Christians worldwide.
Why am I ranting about this now? I don’t know about you, but I have been waking up more and more to the reality that this is a Christian country. We need to see that clearly. The Christian Empire -- obviously evolved in sophistication since the middle ages -- manifests in this country as the elite power structure underlying our government as well as our economy. And while it is true that Jews have fared extremely well here, there is ample evidence that this country is still fundamentally, at its core, part of the Christian Empire. The dominant culture, which we imagine we have so successfully assimilated into, is a culture of domination and control. We may have assimilated, but at what cost to our souls?
Listen to this quote from Christian scripture. In the famous sermon on the mount, Jesus is quoted as saying: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
“You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Really? Where was his audience hearing that said? “Love your neighbor” is from Torah, obviously, and was a fundamental rabbinic teaching at the time. But nowhere in Torah does it say “hate your enemy”! In fact, we are actually instructed not to hate.
Now, some Christian apologists may say that Jesus wasn’t actually referring to Torah here, but rather to a popular saying at the time about hating the Romans, or hating some other Jewish minority group… but I imagine that most Christian readers of the gospel throughout history haven’t heard it that way. They hear it as saying that Judaism taught “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” and that Christianity teaches only love. And there are many other similar messages in Christian scripture and later church teachings pointing to the supposed superiority of Christianity over Judaism.
How hypocritical is that, given that the Christian Empire went on to be one of the most violent and murderous in human history! While Judaism is, and always has been, a religion rooted in love. As Boston author James Carroll sought to educate his fellow Catholics in his monumental book Constantine’s Sword, Judaism was fundamentally rooted in love, from before Christianity even existed.
Judaism is fundamentally rooted in love.
Love between God and the Jewish people.
Love between God and all of humanity.
Love of our neighbors.
Love of the stranger.
Love for our partners and our families.
Love for our community.
The list is long.
And Judaism doesn’t just pontificate about love in the abstract. Our tradition has developed explicit, practical teachings on how to love. We don’t just say “love your neighbor,” we wrestle with what that could mean and develop practical guidelines for how to do it.
One of my favorite sources for Jewish learning is a book called Orchot Tsadikim / Paths of the Righteous. Orchot Tsadikim is an anonymous, medieval collection of ancient teachings on character development, a field of study known in Judaism as mussar.
In Orchot Tsadikim, the chapter on love is a long one, filled with practical advice about parenting, marriage, business, God, and more. Listen to this excerpt on how to love all people:
How does one come to love all people?
This is the path: to help them with your soul and with your possessions, as much as you are able.
[What does it mean to love all people] with your soul?
By serving all people, whether they are rich or poor, and exerting yourself on their behalf.
[What does it mean to love all people] with your possessions? By lending to a rich person in their time of need, and to a poor person in their time of trouble.
You should also occasionally give gifts as you are able, both to the poor and to the rich.
You should loosen your grip and let go of that which is yours.
Notice that there is nothing in this teaching about “liking” all people. Nothing about affection or sentiment. Love is about giving, serving, and exerting ourselves for other people. Love is also about loosening our grip, letting go of what is ours -- which I understand to mean not just our money and possessions but also a more general letting go of our protective identity as “Me” separate from “You” or “Them.” Giving, serving, and exerting ourselves for others, we shift the focus away from our own little egos.
And notice that this practice of love is framed as a “path.”
Serve people, and you will come to love them.
Exert yourself on behalf of people, and you will come to love them.
Do what you can to help others in practical ways, and you will come to love them.
The path of loving action both leads to and is the destination.
There is one voice in Christianity that I trust when it comes to love, and that is the voice of the African American prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., may his memory be a blessing.
King spoke and wrote repeatedly about the moral power of love. He took pains on many, many occasions to clarify the kind of love that is called for in the non-violent movement for justice. For King, the Greek concept of agape defined the kind of love that is necessary for transformation of an unjust society. His understanding reaches back to the early practices of the followers of Jesus, long before their movement was conquered and co-opted by the Roman Empire.
King wrote this explanation back in 1958:
In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will… for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart… Agape is not weak, passive love. It is love in action.... (An Experiment in Love)
And in 1961 he wrote this:
When one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.” I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like someone threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. (Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience)
This really is a Christian country -- a white Christian country -- founded and based on the Christian Empire’s drive for domination and control. Thankfully, Dr. King and other moral voices within Christianity have not forgotten the original teachings of their religion, which grew out of what their founders understood to be the best of our religion. Fundamentally rooted in love.
And so perhaps we can acknowledge that both traditions have something powerful to offer as tools for dismantling and transforming the empire of domination and control. A complete definition and practice of love needs to include both the Martin Luther King perspective and the Orchot Tzadikim perspective. Both the emphasis on radical acceptance and the emphasis on practical action.
As we enter into Yom Kippur as a time of self reflection, may we find ways to manifest more love... both through our hearts and through our hands.
I remember a bedtime ritual I tried to adopt when our son Jacob was very young.
It was a short-lived bedtime ritual.
I would list all the people who loved him, in ever widening circles --
Mommy loves you, and Daddy loves you, and Grandma and Grandpa love you, and your friends love you…
-- on and on, everyone I could think of…
and then, when he seemed just about to drift off to sleep, I would whisper -- “and God loves you.”
It was a short-lived bedtime ritual because I felt a vague uneasiness that if Jacob had opened his eyes and asked me, I wouldn’t honestly have been able say what I meant by “God loves you.”
So I stopped saying it.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always avoided the whole “God loves you” thing.
It always sounded so... Christian.
No one ever mentioned it in my Hebrew School.
Certainly it was not something my parents ever whispered to me as I fell asleep.
It was just not a part of my experience, and I know I am not the only Jewish post-World War II baby boomer who would say this.
But how odd and ironic that is -- because God’s love is actually right at the heart of our tradition. Twice daily, the recitation of the shema is bracketed by a prayer invoking God’s love for us and an instruction that we should love God. Love is supposedly at the heart of our covenantal relationship with the Mystery that we call Adonai.
Is it possible that we experience this love without even knowing it?
Is it possible that we can understand this love without getting hung up on the God language?
It’s not something we usually talk about… which is why I want to talk about it!
There are two versions of the blessing before the shema, depending on what time of day prayers are being recited, but the essence is the same: In the blessing before the shema, we attribute to God the traits of compassion and lovingkindness, and express wonder and gratitude for God’s abundant, everlasting love.
One version of the blessing begins: ahava raba ahavtanu Adonai Eloheinu -- “a great love you loved us Adonai our God.”
It’s an oddly constructed phrase, not easily translated into English. A great love you loved us. (The other version begins with ahavat olam -- infinite, or forever love.)
Some of you may recall that sometimes -- instead of reciting this blessing before the shema -- I have suggested that we close our eyes and “feel or know or visualize or imagine” that there is so much love surrounding us, coming at us from all directions. I’d like to tell you the story behind that suggestion.
About sixteen years ago, on a Friday morning, I had a pain in my lower abdomen that seemed suspiciously like appendicitis. Scans in the emergency room showed not appendicitis, but a mass on one ovary. I then spent one very long weekend in the hospital waiting for surgery on Monday morning.
I remember two things in particular about that weekend. One was that I talked to my mother on the phone a lot, every day, and there was no tension or conflict. Somehow the urgency of the moment just blew us out of our habitual pattern of relating, which was a great gift.
The other thing I remember was that I had a dream very early that Monday morning before surgery. I wrote it down soon afterwards. Here is the dream:
Class is starting, a class in which I am a stranger, unprepared.
Students noisily arranging tables and chairs.
There is no room for me.
The teacher is impatient.
Someone pushes my books to the floor, vaguely threatening.
I am alone. Friendless. Panicked.
I woke up in the hospital room sobbing. But then, rising up through the misery and fear, I heard myself talking back to the dream: NO! That is NOT my experience. That is NOT my reality. I am NOT alone.
And suddenly I felt waves of love rolling in -- I have no other way to describe it -- waves of love from far away, from all directions, washing over me and rippling back out in all directions. I laughed out loud with joy, and fell asleep again.
The mass on my ovary, although enormous, was found to be benign, and I gradually settled back into my life. But that early-morning experience of ahava raba -- a great love -- stayed with me.
All of our prayers are expressions of wow, thanks, or please. This ahava raba prayer seems to be primarily thanks and please. So what is the “please”? What is the yearning that is being expressed?
After attributing abounding love and compassion to God, you might imagine that we would then pray for safety for our loved ones, or for worldly success and comfort. But no. After attributing abounding love and compassion to God, we pray for knowledge and understanding.
How Jewish is that? This prayer assumes that God’s love manifests as our capacity to understand, to discern, to listen, to learn, and to teach our tradition.
So we express gratitude and longing for God’s love -- to power our search for truth and understanding. And then we recite the shema, proclaiming the ultimate Oneness of the mystery we call Adonai. And then we recite the v’ahavta.
Many of you are familiar with the famous words of the v’ahavta. The text is from Torah. The words are an instruction, not a prayer.
It begins: V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha, b-chol l’vavcha, uv’chol nafshecha, uv’chol me’odecha. Love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with everything you’ve got.
Of course the question that has been asked since ancient times is:
What does it mean to be commanded to love God? Is this a prescription of what we are supposed to do, or a description of a state of consciousness towards which we are aiming? Do we choose to translate v’ahavta as “you shall love” as in “you must do this”? Or do we translate it as “you will love” as in “this is what you are aiming for”?
Either way, it’s the challenge of a lifetime.
And it may be that both are true.
Let’s first hear it as a command, which leads immediately to the question:
How are we to fulfill this command? How are we to love God?
The traditional answer: We are to love God by actively loving all people, because all people are created in the image of God / b’tselem Elohim. We are each manifestations of God, and so by loving people we are fulfilling the mitzvah of loving God.
Now let’s try hearing it as a description of a level of consciousness to be attained through spiritual practice. Listen to this medieval teaching:
We can love the holy blessed One only through knowledge....
Therefore we should focus on comprehending and seeing clearly the One who created us….
[How do we do this?] When we contemplate the great things, and recognize all of creation -- from angels to planets, from humans to other creatures --
when we see the wisdom of the holy blessed One in all that has been formed and created, we grow in our love for God, and our soul thirsts and our body yearns to love God. And we are awed and afraid in our insignificance in comparison with any one of the great holy things created by the holy blessed One….
According to this teaching, contemplation of the incredible wonders and marvels of existence will lead to an awareness of the mysterious power behind it all, and a deep yearning to serve that Mystery with all our heart and with all our soul and with everything we’ve got.
This, say our mystics, is what v’ahavta is pointing us towards.
So whatever we do to fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavta circles us back around to ahava raba, to a great love.
Lately I’ve been playing with visualizing this love at the heart of our tradition as a sort of continuous flow or loop (infinity sign). The love we receive (the ahava raba) emerges from and returns to the Unity that is all of existence, that which some of us call Adonai or God or haShem. Love comes to us out of that ultimate source of all existence, and we are called to return that love back to Adonai through contemplating and actively loving all of creation.
And none of this necessitates belief in a God “up there.” We can “feel or know or visualize or imagine” that there is so much love surrounding us, coming at us from all directions, flowing through that mysterious divine spark that is our essence, flowing back out into the world around us.
I have an easier time saying “God loves you” than I did 25 years ago. I don’t care so much now that I don’t really know what it means.
May we all be blessed to experience God’s love in our lives in the coming year.
Once a month, I visit a group of elders at a nursing home. We sing some Shabbat songs (whether they’re Jewish or not, they all love it), catch up with one another, and then I usually raise a question for discussion.
This summer, I asked them the question I was asking myself: What is love?
Before I tell you their answers, let me ask you.
Think for a moment, and fill in the blank:
What is love? Love is…
Here is what my elder friends at Wingate told me:
...putting up with a lot
...allowing each other to be your own person
...when everything you do is for the other person
There is much wisdom in these few words.
And notice that their answers are remarkably devoid of any notions of “romantic” love.
The challenge underlying all my holiday sermons this year is to “Love More.”
Hard to argue with that, right? Who doesn’t want to love more?
But we don’t even necessarily agree about what love is.
Part of the difficulty is that the one English word love is used to refer to many different experiences. The Greeks understood long ago that we need more than one word for love -- they had three. Psychologists and philosophers have added even more.
There is “romantic” love.
There is a parent’s love of a child.
What other kinds of love are there, in your experience?
In Jewish tradition, there are many stories of love. Little known fact: The Song of Songs in the bible is one long, juicy love poem.
But the biblical model of love most admired by the early rabbis was the love of Jonathan and David. Jonathan, son of King Saul. David, who was to become King David.
Jonathan and David were best friends when they were young men.
The rabbis saw in their relationship a love that was not selfish.
A love that was not based on any conditions.
A love that wanted only to serve the needs of the other person.
A love that included self-sacrifice.
A love that transcended death.
We can imagine that this was the sort of love that the early rabbis themselves aspired to, building the emotionally close relationships with one another that at least some of them found more compelling than their arranged marriages.
So that’s the rabbinic exemplar of a loving relationship.
I’d like to invite you now to take a few minutes for quiet self-reflection as I ask you to consider a few questions:
Bring to mind one person who you love.
Now, when you say you love them, what does that mean?
Try to think of a few words that would define your love, or describe it.
You can also try saying what it isn’t, if that’s easier.
OR you can bring to mind someone in your life who has loved you -- how would you describe their love for you?
Thank you all for your willingness to open your hearts to share with one another.
As we enter into the new year, may we all be blessed to experience the healing power of love in our lives.
October 31, 2017
This spring, for the first time, I attended a hearing at the state house. The hearing was about proposed legislation to protect the rights of immigrants in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. The large room was packed, predominantly – although not entirely – with supporters of the legislation, who had to be continually reminded to be quiet and maintain the decorum of the proceedings. It was also uncomfortably warm in the hearing room.
For hour upon hour, with no break, the legislative committee respectfully listened to testimony from citizens ranging from high powered attorneys to a somewhat disheveled and incoherent man who seemed to be hearing God speaking to him directly. It was a marvelous, ordinary day of democracy in action.
I was proud of my Sharon Interfaith Action colleagues who were there to testify on behalf of the diverse immigrant population in Sharon and in particular our Muslim neighbors. But what I remember most about the day was a very different image.
A middle-aged white woman sat before the committee, and reading from a prepared text, testified against the proposed legislation. Her son had been struck and killed by a truck driven by an immigrant. But she did not say immigrant. She very specifically used the term “criminal illegal alien,” and she used it over, and over, and over in her brief testimony. It was like a drumbeat, and it was said each time with a tone of hatred and bitterness. To this woman, it was clear that her son would still be alive if there were no “criminal illegal aliens” in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the end, it was her pain – and her grief – that I heard, louder than the content of her testimony against the legislation.
I tell this story not to raise a debate about immigrant rights. I tell this story because I want to talk about fear, and about our souls’ response to fear. And about what we can do to consciously choose to take personal responsibility for how we respond to fear.
Fear is of course an inevitable aspect of being alive. Every “being” has an innate drive to continue to be. Every being contains mechanisms and systems for warding off the threat of not-being. What we call “fear” is just another name for one of these systems. Whether it’s biochemical or spiritual or something else, fear is a manifestation of our innate drive to exist.
Among the countless things that trigger fear, one thing that has been increasingly obvious this year is that we are afraid of the Other, of the Stranger. We humans react with fear to people whom we perceive to be not like us.
Unfortunately, this instinctual fear of the stranger is easily aroused and manipulated. The culture of our current political system feeds on this fear. Through the shock tactics on news and social media, both right and left, we are all being manipulated into high stress alert about supposed enemies and impending doom, day after day. Fear motivates, but at a huge cost.
Here’s the downward spiral we are all at great risk of falling into:
The more fearful we become, the more self-centered we become.
The more self-centered, the less caring and empathic.
The less caring and empathic, the more susceptible we become to messages of hate and fear.
The more Me, the less We; and that’s a dangerous downward spiral.
Rabbi Master Yoda from Star Wars says it better than I can. We have this quote on our refrigerator: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I saw a photo recently which illustrated this deep teaching in a way more powerful than words: The photo was of two young white men, from opposing sides of a demonstration and counter-demonstration. They were screaming into each other’s faces, their lower bodies separated by a police barricade. Their faces were ugly with anger and hatred. And they were dressed almost identically, with bandanas tied on their heads. One of them, I thought to myself, is on “my” side. But which one? They both looked like they were angry, hateful, and suffering.
Acting on our instinctual fear of the stranger draws us into the downward spiral of anger, hate, and suffering. It happens to us too, not just to the obvious purveyors of hate – the neo-Nazis, the white nationalists. We are all susceptible to this downward spiral of fear, anger, hate, and suffering.
So what’s the way out of this downward spiral? How can we more consciously choose how we respond to fear – to create a world with less fear, anger, hate and suffering?
The answer from within our tradition is clear. Judaism emphasizes the power of free will. Not as an abstract philosophical principle, but as a very real, moment-to-moment, imperative. In every moment we have the free will to make choices. The challenge in every moment is to make choices which lift us above our instinctual, animal inclinations.
Our tradition is also very clear about the moral imperative of empathy and love. Torah tells us 36 times to care for – even to love – the stranger. Why? Because we were once strangers in a strange land. Because we know what it means to be a slave, a refugee, an outsider, an outcast, a hated “other.”
We have a responsibility – a commandment – to be empathic, even loving. We have a responsibility – a commandment – to think and act in terms of We, not just Me. Because even thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew our animal nature, the power of fear, and the necessity for the Soul to gain mastery over it.
How else does our tradition guide us to consciously choose how we respond to fear? During the high holidays, we remind ourselves of the power of teshuvah. Usually thought of in terms of repentance, apology, and forgiveness, teshuvah also means response. It also means turning, in the sense of re-turning to our moral path when we have strayed. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to cultivate a greater awareness of our inner responses of fear and anger to what is happening in the world. And to what is happening in our personal lives as well. We need to continually seek reality-checks from our rational minds, our higher selves, and from other people we trust, to continually re-orient ourselves back to our moral path and vision.
About that grieving mother testifying against immigrant rights at the state house: On the one hand I want to have compassion for her suffering, and be careful not to judge her personally. Yet on the other hand she provides us with an example of how at some level we choose how to respond to our grief and fear. There are countless stories of people who choose to let their hearts be cracked open by their grief, leading them to pledge their lives to working for a more just, safe, and peaceful world for all. And there are people like the woman at the state house hearing, people who choose to channel the energy of their grief into hatred, who choose to see strangers as enemies – requiring more walls, more weapons, and hence even more fear and hatred.
For me, the most powerful statement of our ultimate free will comes from the African American prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am slowly, slowly, working my way through the enormous volume of his collected works, and came across a brief magazine article entitled “Suffering and Faith,” written in 1960. The magazine editors, “aware that King constantly received numerous threats against his life, urged him to comment on his view of suffering.” In his response, King wrote (and I urge you to imagine his thunderous voice as I read):
"My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive."
King’s words are so powerful that I am hesitant to say anything after reading them. So I will say only this:
We can – and we must – take personal responsibility for how we respond to fear and suffering.
We can – and we must – heed the prophetic call, and recognize the troubles of our time as opportunities both to transform ourselves and to transform the people who appear to be our enemies.
May we, and all the people of this great nation, be blessed with even a fraction of the dignity and hope that King modeled in his words and in his actions. And may our souls be called to respond to the fear in our hearts with greater courage and compassion – for ourselves and for those around us.
I was speaking recently with two very elderly women, D and S, who I see once a month at the local nursing home. D just turned 95, and S will be 93 next month, God willing. I asked them how they face their fears. Here’s what they told me:
expressing gratitude every day,
staying present to what is happening right now,
and letting go of thoughts of being in control of what’s happening.
D and S are not saints. They are wonderfully ordinary women who have lived full lives and experienced their share of both suffering and joy. They know, with a clarity most of us lack, that their lives are finite. Quite unselfconsciously, they seem to embody the biblical proverb “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
Why do I say that they embody fear of God? How do we even understand that concept, especially those of us who don’t believe in a personal God? It is obviously not fear in the sense that we tend to use the word, nor is it fear of God in the child-like sense of fearing punishment for wrong-doing. So what is it, what does it have to do with the wisdom of D and S, and what does it have to do with us?
The Hebrew expression for fear of God is yirat haShem. The word yira – yud raish aleph – actually carries a double meaning not captured by the single word fear in English. Yira means both fear and awe. So yirat haShem is more accurately translated as the fear and awe of God. That makes a big difference in trying to understand the centrality of this spiritual practice in Judaism.
Although we expend a significant amount of psychic energy either suppressing our fears or being unconsciously driven by them, our tradition teaches us to cultivate the fear and awe of God. Our tradition promises us, paradoxically, that the more we cultivate this fear, the less afraid we will be. And there is something in how D and S relate to their moment-to-moment reality that feels to me like they are tapping into this promise.
The recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have really shaken me, more than I was able to admit at first. How precarious our lives are, especially for those people living in certain regions of the planet. I can try comforting myself with the thought that where we live is not one of those regions, but the fearful uneasiness remains.
This is one element of yirat haShem: that gut sense of how fragile and insignificant we humans are. How fleeting our lives are, and our possessions and all the things we care about.But if yirat haShem were just about that, life would be bleak and terrifying. What is it about the fear and awe of God that can bring us to a place of feeling less afraid?
On Yom Kippur we traditionally read the story of Jonah – a story that I find even more poignant given the recent tragic storms, as you will see. What can we learn about yirat haShem from the Jonah story? We need look no further than the opening scene:
God instructs Jonah to go warn the people in the city of Nineveh that they need to repent from their evil ways. Jonah flees from God, finding a boat to take him in the opposite direction. God then stirs up a huge, menacing storm; experiencing fear, the other men on the boat cry out to their various gods. When that doesn’t work, they bring Jonah up to the deck from where he has been sound asleep, and ask him what he may have done to bring this storm upon them. When he tells them about God’s instruction and how he is fleeing from it, the other men now “fear a great fear.” And when at last they reluctantly follow Jonah’s instruction to throw him overboard, thereby ending the storm and saving their lives, the men “fear a great fear of God.”
Fear, great fear, and a great fear of God.
The fear and the great fear make sense at the beginning of the story, as the storm intensifies and the threat of death looms larger. But notice when the “great fear of God” happens: The storm is over. The men on the boat are safe. The life-threatening danger is past. So how do we understand the meaning of this great fear of God?
Imagine being one of the men on that boat. Or imagine being one of the people who survived the hurricanes this past month. Imagine the fear… followed by a rush of relief, gratitude, and perhaps a flash of awareness of the preciousness of life.
Many of us have had those flashes, that heightened sense of gratitude, that expanded consciousness, even if momentary, that is both fear and awe, and perhaps something beyond both. In the face of the vast mystery of it all – which Jewish tradition refers to as Adonai, the un-nameable, unknowable totality of existence – in the face of that vast mystery, we wake up, perhaps for just a brief flash, to the reality that our lives are as ephemeral and precious as beautiful clouds. And this time it’s not a bleak and terrifying vision. There can be a sense of okay-ness, a sense of surrendering into the grandness of it all, a sense of trusting. A sense of our life energy being a part of the All, in some mysterious way that we don’t have to figure out. This is the other face of yirat haShem, the fear and awe of God.
Yirat haShem is an experience that can come at the boundary between life and death, and we are taught to cultivate it in our everyday lives. It’s not just something that happens to people who are facing their mortality. It’s not just something that comes to D and S.
So how do we cultivate yirat haShem, especially those of us who don’t necessarily believe in the biblical God or use traditional God language? Here’s the thing – It doesn’t need to have anything to do directly with our personal understanding of or belief in God. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches us that the path to yirat haShem is through whatever practices help us develop humility. Through whatever practices help us lessen the grip of Ego.
How do we develop humility? Through meditation, prayer, contemplation, consciously choosing simplicity, serving others – whatever practices help us to shift our attention away from our anxious little Me.
How do we develop humility? Through seeking at all times to be “a useful engine,” in the immortal words of Thomas the Tank Engine. This simple, profound expression is one of my favorites for orienting the mind and heart in the direction of yirat haShem in everyday life.
How do we develop humility? Through the practices of D and S:
expressing gratitude every day,
staying present to what is happening right now,
and letting go of thoughts of being in control of what’s happening to us.
There is much to be afraid of in this world. Like the men on Jonah’s boat, we are at times literally afraid for our lives. The ultimate spiritual challenge may be to transform the energy of that fear into the fear and awe of God.
May we all find our own ways to cultivate yirat haShem – and in so doing, may we get a taste of that liberation from our fears that we sing of in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me.”
October 30, 2017
On the evening of May 17, a man wanted for armed robbery committed a few months earlier was witnessed fleeing a personal altercation near the Econo Lodge on Route 1, within the Sharon town line. On-duty Sharon police officers were dispatched to aid other town and state police in locating this person, believed to be on foot heading northward, just west of Route 1.
Now it happened that on the evening of May 17, I was just buckling my seat belt in the passenger seat of a Sharon police cruiser when that dispatch call came in. I was doing a “ride along,” part of a nine-week community education program offered by the Sharon Police department. And so, for the next three hours, on the evening of May 17, I was swept up in a search for a human needle in a haystack: a thin man in a gray sweatshirt, on foot, somewhere in the neighborhoods or woods of Walpole. At dusk. Possibly armed, and therefore possibly dangerous.
Was I frightened? I have to say that there were only a few moments when my anxiety rose to the level of fear. In a situation like that, it’s obviously the police who are doing the courageous work. My participation was hardly courageous in the usual sense of the word. At the same time, it was emotionally challenging. Especially when we were traveling at high speeds with blue lights flashing, going through red lights at intersections on Route 1. I had to occasionally say to myself: It’s okay, you’re safe, you’re in the police car. I did a lot of mindful deep breathing.
I am of course aware of my incredible privilege and good fortune, that a wild ride in the front seat of a police cruiser in the suburbs is the scariest situation I’ve faced in a long time. Many, many people in this country are experiencing real fear right now, with good reason. Hard-working immigrants are afraid of deportation and separation from family members. Young people who came here as children with their immigrant parents are afraid of being sent “back” to countries that they do not consider home. Black parents are afraid that their sons and daughters will be lost in the hell cycle of drugs, violence and incarceration. People everywhere are afraid of losing health care, housing, jobs.
And whether or not we here today are directly impacted by these particular fears, we are all experiencing fear in the face of changes happening in this country. We are afraid of what we see happening. We are afraid that the values we hold most dear, as Americans and as Jews, are being threatened and undermined.
For me, and I imagine for many of you as well, the challenge now is how to take action to defend those values, even when it feels scary to do so. In the activist work I have begun this past year, I’m finding that fear keeps coming up. How do we keep moving forward in the face of fear? How can we respond to our fear with courage? And what exactly is courage anyway?
Not that I am holding myself up as a model of bravery. Quite the contrary, what I hope to convince you is that if even a quiet person like me can take action in an increasingly frightening world, then so can anyone! And even more, that there can be an unexpected sweetness and satisfaction in every small step taken with courage.
Seeking Torah insights on the subject of fear and courage, I was drawn to the biblical story of our patriarch Jacob, and how he mustered the courage to face his brother Esau after many decades of estrangement. This is not the Jacob and Esau story that many people know, the one about how when they were young, Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing and then fled, at his mother’s urging, to avoid Esau’s murderous rage. That was how the young Jacob dealt with fear.
The story I want to share happens much later in the biblical narrative. Jacob has been away from his parents’ home now for many years, and has acquired a large family, many flocks and herds,
and some wisdom and humility. He sends a simple greeting to his brother Esau via messengers, informing Esau of his prosperity and hoping for a favorable reply.
The messengers return to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”
And then the Torah tells us: “Jacob was very afraid.”
Now what? Try to run away like he did many years ago? Or maybe arm himself for combat? He’s not young anymore.
It’s a long and wonderful story, and I’m not going to get into the details now. (It’s all in the Torah, you can check it out.) But what I want to highlight is that Jacob prepares for his encounter with Esau. He actually prepares in four distinct ways:
First, he makes a move to protect his clan: dividing them in half so that if there is a hostile attack, at least half will survive.
Second, he prays: reminding God that they have a connection and an agreement, and requesting protection.
Third, he goes into solitude: crossing over the river to spend the night alone, he has a mysterious, transformative wrestling encounter and arises the next morning with a new identity.
And finally, he makes some strategic moves: sending several waves of messengers bearing gifts ahead of him and his family.
Only after these four levels of preparation does Jacob move forward to encounter his brother Esau face to face.
Self-protection, prayer, spiritual work, and strategy. Even more than the particular tactics, for me the point is that Jacob goes through a process. He doesn’t duck into a phone booth and emerge in a superhero costume with superhuman powers. And neither does anyone who responds to fear with courageous action.
Was there a point along the process when Jacob ceased being afraid? I imagine not. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is moving forward in spite of fear.
My being in a police cruiser during a man-hunt was an accidental situation – obviously, I did not intend to be there participating. I’d like to tell you now about my somewhat more intentional effort to be courageous in the face of fear. (I’m sure you each could add a story of your own, and I hope that you will share those stories with one another.)
This past year, as some of you know, I co-founded Sharon Interfaith Action. My intention in creating this community organizing group is to collaborate with activists in the city of Brockton to address long-standing racial and economic injustices. My idea grew out of the reflections and conversations I have been having over the past few years about race, and out of the question I am always lifting up: “What can one person do?” Although the timing of it happened to be when many people were suddenly feeling the need to get active after the presidential election, for me it has been the culmination of several years of reflection.
At the conclusion of Sharon Interfaith Action’s summer training sessions, I invited the participants to write one word on a card which expressed the quality or strength that they aspire to bring to our work together. On my card, I wrote Courage. My intention is to bring courage to my activism work – not because I feel myself to be a courageous person, but precisely because I keep experiencing fear that arises in facing the unknown.
The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that courageously facing our fears includes practical strategies, centering practices such as prayer and meditation, and having a positive vision of the future. I’m also finding that the expression “baby steps” keeps coming to mind. We don’t need to be superheroes to face our fear, we just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And the expression “baby steps” is useful because it also implies that sometimes we fall down, and that’s okay.
The actions I have taken in my activist work so far are baby steps. I’m actually a little embarrassed even mentioning them, because I have done so little. But they do involve facing fear with courage, beginning at the most basic level of, for example, facing my fear of driving and parking and walking in the city of Brockton.
And I want you to know that the joy I have experienced in connecting with people there has been an unanticipated gift. There is a sweetness and satisfaction that comes from every effort to connect with people; all the sweeter when the connection is reached through facing our fears. Our work is only just beginning, but for me there is already a sense of blessing.
You may be wondering how the police man-hunt ended. During my three hours of participating, as you may imagine, my thoughts bounced between wanting to find the suspect and really not wanting to find the suspect.
In the end, the suspect was not found that night, nor the next day. For the police on shift, it was just another work day. For me, it was a humbling glimpse into a world I am grateful I know little about.
We don’t need to be superheroes to face our fear, we just need to keep taking baby steps, putting one foot in front of the other. Just as Jacob did in preparing for his encounter with Esau, we can create our own process of self-protection, prayer, spiritual work, and strategy. That’s courage.
I want to bless each of you with the courage to lean into your fears this year. And may you be blessed also with the sweet satisfaction that comes from connecting with kindred spirits along the way. May we all be blessed to discover our own unique process of baby steps that will move us towards a safer, more just and loving world.