It’s been a challenging period of time. The fires out of control in Colorado heralding a scary fire season; the bus bombing in Bulgaria of Israeli tourists; the mass murder rampage in Aurora, Colorado (again with Colorado); the tepid national economic news that matches many of our individual economic conditions; the refusal of the International Olympic Committee to acknowledge the 40th yahrzeit of the Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics; an email about the increased need to help the homeless in Placer county; a couple of deaths in our community; illness. It’s not a time to feel secure…
We are not the first to face such challenges – nor, in some ways hopefully, will we be the last. The torah is full of challenges: plagues, wars, hunger, jealousy and serious fear of the unknown followed our ancestors throughout their journey. And this week in the Torah, we start Devarim, Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, Moses’ 37 day speech to the people at the border of the Promised Land…
And three times this week, he says – Al tira – fear not. For God is with us.
Some of these things seem like really healthy fears: fire, death, poverty… Do we really think not being afraid is the answer to our problems?
I was talking to a friend of mine lately, describing her precarious economic state, as she moved to another county, is starting a new business with her partner, and lo and behold, they discovered unspoken problems… it turns out her husband’s business is flourishing in their new home, and that makes their state a little less precarious. She believes that God gives her enough. Just enough. But enough is enough.
Many of us have fears – are we earning enough to pay our bills? Will our bosses like our work? Is our marriage as secure as we thought? Will middle school be scary? What happens if I let my child go to that midnight movie: will she come home safely? If I let my child go to 7-11 by himself in a hoodie, will he come home safely?
What I think the torah is trying to tell is not to have a Pollyanna view of the world where everything is just fine, when we know it’s not. Sometimes, it’s about facing our fears, and not letting them run us. Or run us down.
I can recount numerous stories of my own fears – often about disappointing people, about getting myself into a situation that I feel just won’t work, but I don’t have the words to explain my gut feeling. Then I can really feel the panic rising… And this is where I think Moses is going with his – al tira – don’t be afraid. Not that we’re never going to fear, but figure out what to do about it. Turn to your support system, to the people who can help you. Take a few deep breaths, the breath God breathed into us, and slow down your heart rate and ask for help. Problem solve. And recognize that a solution, maybe not THE solution let alone the perfect solution is within your grasp…
I believe that one of the main thrusts of the torah is to remind us repeatedly – because at least some of us need repeated reminders – to stop and breathe. To recognize our fears, our anger, our anxieties BEFORE we act on them. We see multitudes of examples of when we acted first, generally to no good end. (See Golden Calf, the story of the spies, for two prominent examples.)
Another thing to note about Moses’ repeated entreaty – al tira — it comes from the word yirah… which is a complex word… generally it is translated, as I did above, as the JPS does, as fear. But we also translate it as awe…
Indeed, Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, describes yirah as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.” As opposed to the hebrew word, pachad, the fear that triggers the flight or fight instinct.
And align this with Psalm 111:10: the beginning of wisdom is yirat Adonai – the fear or the awe of God. Do you really think that verse is telling us that fear of the higher being who can zap us or send us plagues at will is the beginning of wisdom – or that recognizing that the awe of the power of the universe, however you define God, certainly as something awesome, creating the lightning storm we had last week, or the sunsets we get over the lake and the mountains, or the ability of people to come together, as did the people in Aurora last week…? I’m more in favor of the expansive translation…
So, if yirah can be a positive feeling—even what R. Lew would tell us could be a beautiful, tender feeling to savor, what is Moses telling us when he says al tirah?
I believe Moses, our teacher, is trying to convey that we should not let our fears of others run away with us – because each time he speaks these lines, he is telling us al tira the people in the land, the Anakites, those giants. Don’t let those people, those others steer you away from what you know in your bones of real yirah.
Recognize that life can be scary, recognize that you still need to take the steps necessary to address your fears, but don’t place your faith or fear in false gods, or human beings no matter how tall or seemingly powerful.
I pray that we can find ways to acknowledge our pachad, our fight or flight fear, from our yirah, our awe, and we can recognize that we can lean into the yirah, savor it as we rise up to meet the challenges that triggered it. And if you want to donate sleeping bags for the homeless in Placer County, please do.
 Tara Sophia Mohr, Is it fear or awe? http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/is-it-fear-or-awe/. Accessed 7/26/12.