Thursday, October 4, 2018

Can You Hear Dinah's Voice? Erev Shabbat 09-28-18

The Abuduction of Dinah by James Tissot
Tonight, I’ll be doing something I rarely do, which is actually be quoting from today’s D’var Torah. However, I do expand upon the original text sent out earlier today. But before we begin, tonight’s D’var Torah is reflective of recent events, and discussions and conversations many of us are having with each other and through Social Media, I thought it important to take a look at what Judaism has to say about sexual assault. This is very difficult topic and conversation. For some your wounds are fresh, while for others, the pain is seared into your memories. If you need to step out from our service at any time, please feel free to do so. 
First, a few staggering statistics from the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

·      1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).[1]
·      About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[2]
·      From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.[3]
·      A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.[4]

Clearly sexual assault is happening. Of that, there can be no doubt. And if there is one ray of light in today’s troubled times, even as wounds are being re-opened, it is also reminding us to engage in these vital conversations, and to listen to the heartbreaking stories of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and so many others. 
Tonight and tomorrow, we will be reading from a selection in Exodus found in Ki Tisa. It has to do with the aftermath of the destruction of the first set of tablets following the incident of the Golden Calf. In it, Moses pleads with God’s merciful nature. Then he offers up the words that have become known as the 13 attributes of God, which we recite every High Holy Day and festival. And then Moses goes up to receive a second set of tablets. Either in those tablets or in addition to the ten, he receives instructions to command the observance of the three pilgrimage festivals, including Sukkot. 
However, for our purposes, we start at Exodus 33:12 where it says, “Moses said to God, ‘See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor. Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:12-13).
What Moses is seeking here are really two things. 1. A partner in the journey to lead a people destined to become the nation of Israel. And 2. Guidance towards through the right path in the wilderness. Though one can expand upon this as to know God’s ways as a guide for personal and national behavior in order to be God’s partner.
Which is why it is frustrating that the Hebrew Bible, not just the Torah is ambiguous at best when it comes to sexual assault and abuse of power. For example, there are the stories of Lot’s daughters[5], the rape of Tamar[6], the story of the Levite’s concubine[7], David and Batsheva, and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem.[8]
Each one of these stories is troubling. Lot’s daughters were almost cast out to appease an angry mob. Tamar had to prostitute herself to get what she was due from Judah. The Levite’s concubine, who is never named, dies as a result of neglect and abuse because of her infidelity. David used his position of authority to have Batsheva’s husband Uriah the Hittite, and one of his generals killed in battle, so that he could ‘acquire’ Batsheva, the beautiful woman he observed bathing in her courtyard from his balcony. And Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter listed in the Torah, was raped by Shechem.
In the story of Dinah, her father Jacob says nothing when the heinous act is revealed, and Dinah is never consulted by her brothers who ultimately slaughter Shechem and his whole tribe in retaliation. As is noted in the Plaut Torah Commentary, “The story also sheds light on the status of women in the ancient Near East. The rape was seen as damage inflicted upon the family rather than on the woman.”[9]If there is one saving grace to this passage it is, “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment. Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.”[10]
It is the Rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations who begin to take on rape in a slightly more substantive and compassionate manner. For example, the Talmud prohibits marital rape.[11]Another section of Talmud teaching that bad sex produces bad children condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed resulted in offspring who rebel and transgress. These circumstances include: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her, (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were fighting, (5) they were drunk, and (6) one of them was asleep.”[12]Meaning, there are consequences. In this case the Talmud is equating sexual assault with rebellious offspring. Or to put it another way: don’t do it, otherwise your kids will have behavioral issues. The reality is, even the Talmud, which does take a more nuanced approach, nonetheless, does not provide us with all the answers we are looking for. It is a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be said and done. 
Only recently, has our contemporary understanding of tradition today universally condemns sexual assault, but it has taken a long time to get to this point. Reform Judaism really only began to address these issues openly in the 1970s. Since then we have been on the forefront of acknowledging and speaking out against sexual violence and domestic assault. 
What can we do? One of the most important lessons we can learn from our tradition is to hear the voice of Dinah. Sadly, what she felt and what she had to say were never written down. But it no longer has to be that way. Instead of sitting in judgment or ignoring the cries of victims, it is time we combine the story of Dinah with the most important mitzvah in our tradition: Shema,listen! Listen to the cries of victims. Genuinely hear their stories. If we wish to walk in God’s paths and to truly know God’s ways, and gain God’s favor, we need to hear the voices from all of God’s creation. Not just those of a specific gender. Not just those who are in positions of power, but from all. Moses was looking for a partner in his journey. Now God is looking to us to partner once again in a journey to acknowledge and call out all instances of sexual abuse and assault.
Until the scourge of sexual violence is ended once and for all, we have to unite and stand up and hold all who commit such crimes accountable and not dismiss the testimony of those who suffer at their hands simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Shema, Listen!


A Prayer for the Victims of Sexual Violence
Shechina
Bless all who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault and rape
Bless those who are reliving their experiences
through the words of the pain of and suffering of others
Support all them with your abounding love
at all times 
Grant them comfort
as they wrestle with the challenges
of each day.
Sustain them in hope
as they prepare for the days ahead.
And God, through your guidance help us to genuinely hear and believe the words of the victims
And to also be understanding and supportive to those who make the choice not to share their stories
Remind us not to discount their voices, their memories
Remind us to listen and not judge
Grant us the strength to raise up our voices and actions in solidarity,
And the courage to hold all who commit such heinous deeds accountable now and forevermore 
Amen.



[1]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[2]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[3]United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment Survey, 2012 (2013).
[4]Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders (1997).
[5]Genesis 19
[6]Genesis 38:1-30
[7]Judges 19–20
[8]Genesis 34
[9]Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 218
[10]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pg. 204
[11]Babylonian Talmud Eruvim 100b
[12]https://www.myjewishlearning.com/the-torch/how-do-the-rabbis-in-the-talmud-address-rape/

Friday, September 21, 2018

Yom Kippur Morning - When the Laughter Dies


Before we begin the sermon, I would like to preface it by stating that it will be dealing with issues relating to mental health and suicide and Jewish responses to these critical issues. I know for some, this is a very sensitive issue, and if you choose that this sermon hits a too little close to home, I completely understand. 
It is undeniable that Jews have had an incredible impact on American culture beginning in the early days of the 20thcentury. One could argue that our fellow landsmen were instrumental in the invention of Hollywood and the comic book superhero. We were also heavily involved in the development of Jazz, the musical comedy on Broadway, the arts, poetry, and cuisine, just to name a few. But for our purposes today, it was also Jews also helped bring to maturity the art of the stand-up comic.
The antecedents to stand-up comedy in our country date back to the wandering minstrel shows whose origins date back to before the Civil War. That being said, the stand-up comedian as we know it, really traces its lineage back to the days of Vaudeville. As author Kliph Nesteroff notes in his book The Comedians, “at the start of the twentieth century, the United States had close to five thousand vaudeville theaters. There were small houses with less than five hundred seats, medium theaters seating a thousand and large palaces that accommodated anywhere from fifteen hundred to five thousand people. The result was an immense working-class circuit, an underbelly where future stars learned their craft.”[1]
The number of famous names who honed their craft working in conditions that were dreadful at best and horrific at worst, are almost too many to recite. They include Abbott and Costello, Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and the list goes on and on. Some of them went on to fame and fortune by appearing in radio and later in the movies. 
Others worked the comedy circuit which moved on from Vaudeville first to night clubs, then to Vegas, then to the Borscht Belt, followed by the boom with the rise of the comedy clubs in the 60s and 70s.
Most of the early stand-up performers were not much more than joke tellers. In Nesteroff’s words, “prior to the 1950s the vocation of stand-up comic was not far removed from being a door-to-door salesman. One learned the basics, memorized some routines, found an agent at 1650 Broadway and called himself a comic … A 1946 book called From Gages to Richespraised comedians who used lines like “I know there’s an audience out there, I can hear you breathing” and “Is this an audience or a jury?” It’s amazing anyone earnestly used lines now associated with Fozzie Bear, but the Willy Loman approach worked for decades.”[2]
It was not really until the 1950s when comedians “like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters came along … (who) led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities,”[3]that modern stand-up comedy, as we know it today, came into existence.”
With the rise of the modern comedian also came the stereotype of the sad-clown. As was noted in a recent CNN article, “Legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety.”[4]
Not all comedians buy into this theory. As Nesteroff notes, “The ‘tears of a clown’ idea has dominated comedy discourse even as giants like Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld rejected this idea. ‘There are a lot of unhappy people driving bread trucks, but when it’s a comedian people find it very poignant,’ said Seinfeld. ‘Some of them are in pain but I don’t see that as a thread.’ Carson said, ‘There have been volumes written about why comedians are lonely, depressed, rejected, hostile, within themselves. They say you must be suffering. I don’t adhere to that philosophy.’”[5]Carson went on to explain further. 
All that being said, many Jewish comics embody the themes of the neurotic and troubled individual. And we, as an audience, eat it up. There is something about witnessing a person open themselves up completely and fully in such a raw and powerful way that makes us laugh and helps us to navigate our own worlds. As Richard Lewis, whom Mel Brooks once described as the “Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy” said, “I read somewhere that when I go on stage, people realize that they’re not me and they feel better.” But at the same time, these comedians are also making a huge sacrifice for our benefit, that sometimes ends in tragedy.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this comedian filled with inner turmoil was the late-great, Robin Williams. Though not Jewish, Robin incorporated many Jewish imitations and Yiddishisms in his routines. At a dinner for the Shoah Foundation, Robin started his routine by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to Temple Beth Prada. This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”[6]
Robin was also close friends with Steven Spielberg and Billy Crystal. And Robin and others even referred to him as an “honorary Jew.” Following his death, Steve Martin referred to Williams as a ‘mensch.’ 
Recently author Dave Itzkoff wrote a fascinating and in-depth biography on him simply entitled, “Robin.” Itzkoff tells the story of Robin’s childhood as the only child of divorcees. How he grew up, upper-middle class, and developed his imagination playing with, among other things, toy soldiers. How he really did not come to improv or comedy until college, and how he was inspired by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational stand-up would become the basis for Robin’s own manic energy that awed so many of his fellow comedians during the 70s and 80s. And how his tragic death by suicide left the world bewildered, a little more sad, and a little less funny. 
Robin was a constant in my childhood. From his days on Mork and Mindy, to Popeye, which the critics hated, but I enjoyed, to his standup specials and Comic Relief, and later to his movies like Good Morning Vietnam, which was his first major critical success, and later to one of my favorites growing up, Dead Poets Society and later Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire and so many more, and his late night show appearances, I knew I could count on him for a laugh, a respite from my own feelings. 
So of course, his sudden death came as a shock. Why would someone so beloved, so famous, so funny, want to take their own life? It was later revealed that, Robin suffered from Lewy Body Disease. In the words of Izkoff, “Lewy Body Disease, a dementia believed to affect more than 1.3 million people in America – and far more men than women – results from a buildup of protein deposits in the brain.”[7]As Izkoff goes on to explain, “It is also a disease with an associated risk of suicide, particularly when patients are younger and before its most severe effects have set in. ‘If you’re young, if you have insight into what’s happening, and you have some of the associated symptoms – like depression and the hallucinations … that’s when we think the risk of suicide is highest…” Or as his friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal stated, “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”[8]For some, the diagnosis of Lewy Body Disease is comforting because it provides, and explanation, a reason for why Robin did what he did. But in reading the narrative of his life, this rational explanation is far too simple for such an irrational act. 
Robin battled with demons throughout much of his adult life. When not on stage, he was described often as being quiet, lonely, and reclusive. It was the audience and the laughter and applause that he lived for. More often than not, Robin would rather portray a character rather than be his genuine self. The question being, what happens when the applause and the laughter stops?
Suicide is often described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But this description is problematic because it puts the blame solely on the shoulders of the person who commits the act. 
Judaism has had a complex relationship with mental health. As an article in My Jewish Learning explains, “There is little direct discussion of mental illness in the Bible, though some have suggested that various biblical figures, most notably King David, may have suffered from depression. In the Bible, “madness” is described in several places as a form of divine punishment. In Deuteronomy, shigaon — an antecedent term for the common Yiddish expression meshuggeneh, or crazy — is one of the forms of divine retribution for those who don’t heed the word of God. Later in that section, God says that the Jewish people will become “m’shuga” after a foreign people steals their crops and abuses them.”[9]
The rabbis of the Talmud deal with mental illness mostly in terms of competency and ability to fulfill religious obligations. As is stated in tractate the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chagigah 3b Our Rabbis have taught: What is a "shoteh" [translated until now as a mentally ill person]? He who goes out alone at night, and he who sleeps in a cemetery, and he who tears his clothes. It is stated: R. Hunna said, so long as they all take place at one time.”[10]Basically what the rabbis are doing here is giving examples of behaviors they feel a person of sound mind would not perform.
Or as My Jewish Learning goes on to explain, “According to traditional Jewish law, someone who is mentally incompetent — a category known as a shoteh, derived from the Hebrew word for wanderer or vagrant — is exempt from most religious obligations and cannot get married or bear witness. The Talmud describes such a person as someone who goes out alone at night (despite the dangers) or sleeps in a cemetery — signs of his or her detachment from reality. Maimonides said the shoteh is someone who runs around naked or throws rocks.”[11]
Nowadays, we know mental health to be a much more complicated issue and rather than stigmatize it, we should strive to better understand it. 
Recently Johann Hari, an insightful, but problematic writer composed the book – Lost Connections. Now before we dive into some of his insights, a note on Hari. He has been exposed to plagiarism, and his arguments against the use of anti-depressants are very much up for debate. Also, his examination of the bio-psychosocial model are not his own creation. The reason why I am referencing him is because he does provide a good and accessible summation relating to the issues we are discussing this evening. Or to put it another way, the causes of mental health issues are not exclusively in our heads.
Hari goes on to explain that there are nine causes of depression and anxiety: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from childhood trauma, disconnection from status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, disconnection from a hopeful or secure future, and from issues relating to genes and brain changes.[12]
Rather than dive into each one of his causes, we can simply note that there is a central theme running through his book. As Hari goes on to explain, “You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated. 
Every human being has these needs, and in our culture, we’re relatively good at meeting physical needs … but we’ve become quite bad at meeting these psychological needs.”[13]
Now this is not to dismiss chemical issues in the brain. But to recognize that our brains and the way they function are also directly impacted by our environment, the world we live in and the worlds we build around us. 
Our sages knew intrinsically that community was essential to the health and well-being of the individual, just as the individual is essential to the vitality and progress of the community. This is in part why we pray together in minyan, in a group. This is why we mourn in minyan, so no one ever mourns alone. This is why we celebrate life cycle events in community, and this is also why no one should suffer alone.
So how can we, as a Jewish community, help to take on the issue of mental health? First off, we need to be more open. We need to stop stigmatizing people who suffer from depression and anxiety. We need to stop whispering in hushed tones as if depression and anxiety are a communicable disease. 
We need to be more open about our own experiences. I myself have struggled with issues of depression and loneliness. A big part of it has to do with the nature of the modern rabbinate. It can be a very demanding and isolating profession at times. It often takes me away from my family and being an exemplar for a community can be spiritually and physically exhausting. Mind you, thankfully my thoughts have never gone done that dark road, and I have not been tempted to turn to the paths of drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. But, like many I do turn to ineffective remedies like food and buying things like guitars to try to fill that empty feeling. 
However, this sermon is not about me nor is it about the rabbinate. Instead I am giving you a glimpse into my world because I know many of you are also struggling with similar feelings and emotions. I know this because we have had conversations about it. Not just about professions but also related to family disappointments and physical and emotional challenges of ageing. 
We also need to trust our friends, our family, our community, our support networks enough to be more honest with them. Unlike most illnesses, mental health is mostly internal, though there can be physical manifestations. That is why we are so shocked when an Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade take their lives. They seemingly had it all, but clearly were fighting their own inner demons. 
And perhaps, most importantly, we need to be ready, able and willing to listen and not judge. Our society is very much built on the superficial relationship. “I’m fine, you’re fine.” If you’re not fine, take a pill and feel better. Or the competitive, you think you’ve got problems, wait until you hear mine. Or the you think you’ve got it bad, so many others have it so much worse than you. In reality we know this is not helpful or constructive. 
Instead we can be inspired by our tradition and by the High Holy Days. In its purist form, the haunting melody and words of Kol Nidre, and really the entirety of the liturgy of the Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, invite us to stand before God; raw and exposed. Our liturgy is set up to create a model of support. We confess, we open up not just with God, but also with each other. It is hard work. It is awkward. It is discomforting. But it is also honest, and it is necessary. We may not be able to solve of the societal ills that leave so many anxious and depressed. But within the framework of our tradition and our heritage we do have a roadmap to be able to help ourselves and those who are suffering both silently and openly in our orbits. 
In an interview with MTV in 1988 concerning his movie ‘What Dreams May Come,’ Robin Williams said, “My live now is extraordinary. It’s full of amazing people and such gifts, in terms of everything around me. I’m just so in awe of how I am right now … it makes me examine how precious the connections I have in this life [are]: family, friends. There are so many things that I really treasure. If anyone comes away with anything from the movie, if they look at their own life and really realize what they have or who is in their life. Then that’s interesting. Then I’ve accomplished something.”[14]
If you, or someone you love, is dealing with issues related to mental health, depression, and thoughts of suicide, please let us know. We have many wonderful mental health professionals in our congregation who can work with you directly and confidentially or can recommend someone for you. You don’t have to struggle alone. We, as a community, are here for you.
As we continue into the last day of the Yom Kippur, may we be reminded to build upon those most important connections in our lives. May we hear the voices crying out aloud or silently of those who are suffering. May we hear our own voices and be reminded to reach out to those who can help. May we remember that our lives are filled with blessings and with the potential for more blessings. May we be inspired by the legacies of those who have brought so much laughter and joy into our worlds and seek to do the same. And may we all know that we are not alone, but instead that we are part of a larger community and family that cares for us, that cares about us, and that is there for us. Amen.


[1]Nesteroff, Kliph, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, New York, Grove Press, 2015, pg. 1
[2]Ibid pgs. XIV-XV
[3]Ibid pg. XV
[4]https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/01/health/sad-clown-standup-comedy-mental-health/index.html
[5]Comedians, pg. XIV
[6]https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/robin-williams-honorary-jew/
[7]Itzkoff, Dave, Robin, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018, Pg. 424
[8]Ibid pgs. 426-247
[9]https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/

[10]BT Talmud Tractate Chagigah 3b
[11]https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/
[12]Hari, Johann, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, New York, Bloomsbury, 2018
[13]Ibid. pgs. 256-257
[14]http://www.mtv.com/news/1897008/robin-williams-afterlife-interview/

Thursday, September 13, 2018

RH Day II Sermon: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid


I was in Middle School when I discovered the wonders and horrors of one of the United States’ most successful authors, Stephen King. As a teenager, he scarred the heck out of me, and I loved every page of it. You name it, Cujo, Carrie, the Stand, Pet Cemetery, and Christine were some of my early favorites. As an aside, I only recently learned from our own Susan Caminez that King’s books are not biographies about Maine. The one book that captured my imagination more than any other was the one simply entitled “It.” “It” is the tale of an ephemeral evil plaguing the fictional town of Derry, Maine often in the guise of a clown named Pennywise. 
There was a particular scene in the opening of the book involving a young boy, a rain storm, a paper boat, and a sewer grate that created such a sense of fear in me, that I refused to stand at my bus stop for weeks because it too was on a sewer grate. 
“It,” which was released in 1986, and it was adapted as a television miniseries in 1990 starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. “It” was then recently made into a two-part feature film, the first of which was released in September of last year, raking in over $700 million in ticket sales. 
Now truth be told, since Middle School, I have not really been into horror novels. I also haven’t seen too many horror movies since high school. However, since “It” came on cable recently, I decided to DVR it, though I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps I recorded it simply out of a desire to reconnect with my younger self. 
However, after a few minutes of watching the movie, I realized I needed to turn it off. Not because I was afraid of sewer grates any longer, but because, as a father, I couldn’t watch something bad happen to a child. The movie is a work of complete fiction, but the opening scene raised so many unsettling possibilities in my mind. It took my imagination down paths I simply did not wish to go. In my mind, I was not seeing my younger self next to that sewer grate, but instead, I was imagining one of my boys. And that made me deeply unsettled, if not afraid.
Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the very notions of fear lately. Not only do we live in a climate where we are bombarded with messages to keep us afraid, but even our old Gates of Repentance was designed, in part, with fear in mind. The theology of our old machzor was very much based on the idea that we should engage in teshuvahbecause we should be afraid of the repercussions if we do nothing.
Fear is a curious thing. According to Psychology Today, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger — if we didn't feel it, we couldn't protect ourselves from legitimate threats.”[1]According to the science of evolution, this is a fundamental human trait we inherited from our ancestors living in the savannah. Back then, we had a biological imperative to be afraid of the apex predators who were bigger, stronger, and faster than us.
However, as we, as human beings, have become the apex predator, our fears have transformed. This all began when we started to domesticate our environment. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “…the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their view of life. We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us.”[2]What this means, for our purposes, is that we gave up a life of specific fears, like predators, to generalized fears like crop failures, too little rain, or too much rain, and the possibility of theoretical external threats coming to steal all of our hard work. 
Our practical fears have evolved into a generalized state of anxiety. But our minds were simply not designed to deal with this new amorphous type of fear. Being in a regular state of anxiety can have detrimental effects on our thoughts, our relationships, and on our bodies. Specific fears can motivate, general fears can paralyze. 
According to the great modern Jewish theologian, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, “in sum, a small dose of fear keeps us alert and alive, but an overdose can leave us perpetually tense, emotionally closed, and paralyzed to the point of inaction. If we could take a pill to banish fear, or if we could have a small part of our brain removed so that we would never feel afraid, it would be a serious mistake. Our goal should not be the total absence of fear but the mastery of fear, being the master of our emotions rather than their slave. Our goal should be to recognize legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do.”[3]
However, in times of great uncertainly, it can be very difficult to ascertain the difference between general fears and specific fears, as it often seems like we should be afraid of just about everything, if you would believe the news. So how do we go about fulfilling the mission described above by Rabbi Kushner to recognize “legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do?”
Today we read from the very beginning of Beresheet. The reason for this reading is because Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the creation of the world. However, one could argue that Beresheetis not about the creation of the world, but instead is about the creation of Shabbat, the first Divinely ordained holiday, the day of rest.
Beresheetis also about one of the overarching themes in the Torah, which is God creating a sense of order out of chaos. As we read through the seven days of creation, there comes a rhyme and reason for everything. Day and night are separated. The moon and the sun are separated. The waters and the earth are separated. Animals are set apart, each unto their own kind. And humans are planted in the middle of all of this. Balance is achieved, at least for a while, until the second story of creation with Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But why were they expelled? In Genesis it teaches, “So God Eternal took the man, placing him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. God Eternal then commanded the man, saying, “You may eat all you like of every tree in the garden – but the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or as others translate – the Tree of All knowledge) you may not eat, for the moment you eat of it you shall surely die.”[4]
However, as we know, after eating the fruit, most likely a fig, Adam and Eve did not die. Instead, what the Torah is teaching is that they in the words of Kushner, “would realize, in a way no other creature does, that they were fated one day to die.”[5]Or to put another way, eating of the forbidden fruit, was not an act of evil, but instead an unintentional act that created a sense of mortality and fear of death that has imbued our humanity ever since. 
Before that point, according to the Torah, because humans had no knowledge, they had no fear. So the question simply is: how can we rebalance ourselves with the knowledge of fear? One way is simply to give into it, and the other is to recognize that fear is a result of imbalance and react in ways to try to bring about balance once again like in the Garden of Eden.
In Psalm 27:1 we read, “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? 
God is the strength of my life; of what shall I be afraid? …
Though a host encamp against me, my heart will have no fear”[6]
Upon initial reading of this, we might think our tradition is saying, “have faith in God, and you shall never fear.” 
However, as Kushner explains, “When the psalmist tells us three times in the first three verses of this psalm that he is not afraid, the message I hear is that he is afraid, but he is working at mastering his fears. It is like when your young child tells you, “I’m not afraid of big dogs anymore.” He is really saying that they still frighten him, but he is working on his fears rather than giving in to them or hiding from them. And where does the psalmist get the courage to stand up against enemies and other dangers? It comes from faith in God, not a God who protects him from all trouble and danger but a God who stands with him in time of trouble and danger so that he never has to feel he is facing his problems alone. To the psalmist, God is the source of light, strength, and salvation.”[7]
Here at last, we begin to find the answer to our question about our fears. Yes, we know the world is not always safe. Yes, we know the world can be capricious and bad things can and will happen. Yes, we know there are bad actors who may be seeking to do harm to us and or the ones we love. And yes, we know there are people in positions of power making decisions that we not only fundamentally disagree with, but we are fearful that they can gravely impact our lives, our communities, and the greater world as well.
But what we cannot do, is live in fear. So how do we go about doing this? Perhaps we can find key suggestions from another Rabbi in our tradition, Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steinberg, one of the great progressive thinkers of the early 20thcentury who is most well-known for his book As A Driven Leaf, also had a collection of writings entitled: A Believing Jew. In that collection he wrote an essay entitled, “The Fear of Life.”
As Kushner explains about Steinberg’s writings, “we are all too familiar with the fear of death. But Steinberg suggested … that there is a parallel fear of life. Only human beings are afraid of life, because only human beings can imagine the future. He wrote, ‘We fear for our children because we know what strange paths they may wander. We are timorous about our health because we can picture ourselves in the grip of malignant disease.’ And we are afraid of the future because it may lead to failure, hardship and pain. Because we yearn for so much, life can disappoint us in so many ways. Because there are people in our world whom we care about, life can hurt us. How can we get over our fear of life?
Steinberg’s first recommendation is that we face reality without illusions. Life may feel more pleasant, the future may seem more hopeful, if we deny reality, but no one can live courageously if his (or her) life is based on pretense and denial…”[8]So we have to accept life as it is and not hide in a corner, curled up in a ball muttering to ourselves that everything is fine. 
“The second ingredient in Steinberg’s prescription for curing us of the fear of life is a sense of duty. Do what you have to do even if it scares you. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face [and] you are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along…”[9]We do this every time we stand in defiance of fear. We do this every time we stand for a purpose. We do this every time we stand for a cause that is just and right. Imagine the worst possible thing that can happen when we take this course of action, and the reality is, most of the time, it doesn’t. As we find, our imagined fears are often much greater than the real outcomes. But we won’t know that unless you do what you have to do, even if it scares you.
“Steinberg’s third step in meeting fear with courage is rooted in the realization that we don’t have to do this alone. One of (Kushner’s) … favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”[10]Why do we gather together every year on the Yamim Noraiim, the High Holiest of Days, where our tradition compels us to be filled with awe, and with? It does this to remind us that we are, in fact, not alone. We are a part of a larger community that is there for one another to help each other to both conquer fear and overcome the sources of those fears. Together we can find support and allies to fight the source of those fears.
As Kushner goes on, “And finally, there is the resource of faith, not the belief that God is a Santa Claus figure who will give us what we want if we have been good, not the illusion that all stories have happy endings, but the stubborn conviction that we are strong enough to survive misfortune, rejection, and failure.”[11]Faith in God, in many ways, is expressed as faith in ourselves. 
Yes, we are living in scary times. That being said, giving into fear only makes the times scarier. Perhaps then we need to shut off our televisions from time to time or get off of social media and remind ourselves to reach deep and find the faith to overcome our fears so that we may become agents of change in the world. It may be part of our animal nature to be fearful, but it is our humanity that can help us to overcome it. As our prophet Micah stated in his vision of the world as it ought to be, “They shall sit every person under their vine and under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”[12]
Until that day comes, let us live in the way Mark Twain once famously described when it comes to fear, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.” With that in mind, as we set out on this New Year, may we all be inspired to live a little bit more courageously.
We pray, Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, or master of ourselves, help us to overcome our fears in order to help bring about the world You envisioned through Your prophet Micah, where all are at peace, where there is no more suffering, and where none are afraid. And until that day comes, help give us the strength and courage to know that our fears will be not what define us, but instead they will be what drives us. 
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s Will. 
L’shana Tova


[1]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/fear
[2]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, New York, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 81
[3]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 11
[4]Genesis 2:15-17
[5]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 143
[6]Psalm 27: 1,3
[7]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 162
[8]Ibid., pgs. 169-170
[9]Ibid., pgs. 170-171
[10]Ibid., pg. 171
[11]Ibid., pg. 171-172
[12]Micah 4:4