YOM KIPPUR 5780
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od … v’ha ikar lo l’facheid klal
Said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is to not be afraid at all.”
Another English translation of this might be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comment that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which came from his first inaugural address in 1933, when our country was suffering its deepest, darkest times. He continued by calling that fear a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He reminded the people that this nation has thrived and endured, and that with a collective effort, will thrive again. We know from history that this did, in fact, happen. We came out of the Great Depression. We survived World War II, recessions, McCarthyism, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 and more.
Since the beginning of time, humanity has thrived in the face of difficulty and disaster, invasion and destruction. Periods of relative calm are interspersed with times of crisis. As I’ve often said, the short history of every Jewish holiday is, “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” And while I know that food doesn’t fix things, Ben and Jerry got me through many evenings of Talmud homework in rabbinical school and even helped with this sermon.
A rabbi I know once said that in his opinion, the destruction of the Second Temple was the best thing that could have happened to the Jewish community, which was quite a shocking statement to me. But his thinking made sense … it was a time in history when pagan communities were phasing out animal sacrifices, so imagine if we had continued? We had enough trouble with persecution from Christianity and living under Roman rule! This might have sent things over the proverbial edge. Judaism and the Jewish people might not have survived without adapting to a new mode of observance and worship. Yet here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, thriving in communities all over the world. We’ve incorporated ideas and customs from the cultures and societies where we have lived, made them Jewish, and learned from them. We’ve also contributed much to those cultures while still maintaining our traditions and observances.
That said, the world seems to be changing at a much more rapid rate than ever before in history and change itself can be a source of fear. It’s much easier to stay where we are, even if it’s a less-than-ideal situation, than to face the risks involved with something new.
Rebbe Nachman’s words, all the world is a narrow bridge,” resonate today as much, if not more, when he wrote them some time in the late 1700s. However, the version that became popular in Jewish summer camps has a grammatical difference from what he originally wrote, which is shelo yitpacheid klal, a reflexive statement which says, “one shouldn’t make himself fear at all,” as opposed to lo l’facheid klal, “he shouldn’t fear at all.”
Fear is an essential part of life. It’s what keeps us from getting into more trouble than we already do. No one gets through their teens and 20s – and maybe 60s and beyond – without looking back on something we did and saying, “What was I thinking???” There’s no question that there are truly things to be afraid of in this world. Many are the same fears that faced our ancestors since the beginning of time, others are, or at least appear to be, new.
This past year we studied the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, and discussed one of his most famous verses, ayn chadash tachat haShemesh, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” meaning that things we assume have never before existed or happened, have their origins in something that we already have or have experienced. A story from the Talmud tells of Rabban Gamliel, who quoted the prophet Jeremiah, saying that “in the world-to-come, a woman would give birth on the same day she conceived.” When a student scoffed at this, quoting this verse, “ayn chadash tachat haShemesh,” Rabban Gamliel then took the student outside and said, “Let me show you an example of that in this world,” and took him to the yard where the hens would lay eggs every day.
The first chapter of Kohelet reminds us that life is fleeting,
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Vapor of vapors, said Kohelet, everything is breath, mere vapor. This translation might surprise you, if you’re used to the usual translations that “all is vanity” or “utter futility.” However, Robert Alter’s translation of havel havalim as “vapor of vapors,” is more accurate, and fits with Psalm 144, which is part of our Yizkor service: Adam la-hevel dama, yamav k’tzel ovair, “A person is like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” Life is short, and Kohelet’s point is that we need to use the time we’re given wisely.
He doesn’t speak about fear, per se, but of the search for meaning in his life. He tries to find it through amassing a fortune but doesn’t. He turns to merriment and revelry but doesn’t find it there either. He concludes, basically, that all things are from God, and that we should enjoy them in balance. As Julia Child supposedly said, “Everything in moderation, even moderation.” Kohelet realizes that he spent a lifetime searching for something that was available to him all along, and he wants to make sure that his disciples don’t have to learn the way he did, the hard way.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur force us to confront our lives and the way we’re living them. Do we wander aimlessly from one activity to another, or are we passionate about a cause, such as registering people to vote, cleaning up a beach or fighting climate change or hunger? Do we make sure we have time to care for ourselves, along with caring for others? Whether we’re retired, working at a job or career, caring for a friend or family member, or volunteering our time and energy, do we wake up looking forward to the day, or dreading it? Do we embrace the idea of trying new things, or do we hold back because we’re afraid we might fail, or fall?
Today, most of us aren’t facing the kinds of fears enumerated in the B’rosh Hashanah section; here in Malverne I don’t worry too much about wild beasts, but at the World Scout Jamboree in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia, there were bears checking out some of the campsites, which was definitely a cause for concern and vigilance, especially when one of the French contingents in our subcamp was putting food in the woods to attract them and take pictures!
The Unetane Tokef prayer in our Yamim Noraim liturgy taps into our deepest fears … dying, death, pain, despair, the fear of being disabled physically or mentally, the fear of losing those we love, of the rapidly changing world around us. Typically, we translate Yamim Noraim as “Days of Awe,” but the Hebrew word for “awe” – yirah – can also mean fear and terror, or it can mean reverence and respect.
The Unetane Tokef helps us to accept, live with and deal with the very real fears present in our lives. First, we’re told that all of the world stands in judgment before God, so even the people and things who might intend us harm are also judged. Next, God is compared to a shepherd watching over his flock, counting every sheep to make sure they’re all accounted for. We then name those fears, life and death, fire and water, rich and poor… because naming something can often take away its power.
Finally, the idea that teshuva, u tefillah u tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha g’zeira, that prayer, repentance and charity can help mitigate the severity of that which has been decreed, puts in our hands the power to live our best lives. In fact, the liturgy is quite clear; it tells us that God opens the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own words have signed the page.” We are the ones writing in this book, and the idea that we can be the authors of our future is quite awe-inspiring in itself.
I don’t know what the coming year will bring. These days terrify me, and not because I’m wondering if and how you’re all judging me – that was last year’s sermon. But yeah, I do wonder. I feel fear because a year of potential is in front of me, and while I can make plans, I can’t guarantee how it’s going to go. What will happen to change my plans? Who will be sitting here next year and who won’t be? Will our next trip to Chattanooga or France be for simcha or sorrow? What curve balls will the world throw at me, and what narrow bridges will I need to cross in order to grow? Will I live up to my potential? As the story is told, Reb Zusia was crying, and when his students asked why, he replied, “I’m afraid that when I meet God, he won’t ask me why I wasn’t Abraham, or why I wasn’t Moses … he’ll ask me, ‘why weren’t you Zusia?’ and I won’t have an answer.
When I was in my 40s, I took figure skating lessons. I was never going to be an Olympic skater, even the senior Olympics, but part of me wishes I’d stayed with it longer. I stopped, because I decided that I was less likely to fall and get hurt reading Torah than skating. That’s probably true, but my fear of falling – which I didn’t acknowledge until later – definitely held me back from becoming as good as I might have been. Or finding out that I wasn’t going to be as good as I’d dreamed, and just enjoy being on the ice. However, I do still have my skates, so you never know!
We live in a scary world, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Pick your concern, war, hunger, refugee crises, climate change, assault weapons, disease, accidents – life. How do we cope? How do we maintain a sense of hope for the future? For our children, grandchildren and beyond? How do we keep from falling into the abyss, or from wanting to crawl into bed, pull the covers over our heads and ask to be woken up when it’s over?
Bereshit bara Elo-him et hashamayim v’et ha-aretz, v’ha-aretz hai-tah tohu vavohu … “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water …” God said, y’hi or, Let there be light, va y’hi or, and there was light. Out of chaos comes order if we’re not afraid to see what might happen, be willing to take a chance on falling or failing, and to learn and grow along the way.
Yehudis Golshevsky wrote a prayer based on Likutei Moharan, a collection of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, that I’d like to share.
Please help me to remember, even at those moments when I feel suspended over the abyss, that my fear of falling is what trips me up.
If I can only hold on to the certainty that You’re with me, of what could I possibly fear?
The bridge is narrow … but it runs all the way to the other side.
The world is a narrow bridge, life is a narrow bridge, but when we get to the other side, we encounter an enormous world of possibility.