These are the "Days of Awe", also translated as the "Days of Fear" – Hayamim Hanoraim, [same Hebrew root], in which we are to face the fears we hold – and name them, so that we might deal with them squarely.
There is an interesting piece of Gemara (Talmud) that I recently learned from Rabbi Michael Marmur, who is Dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Our Rabbis taught: There are five instances of fear cast by the weak over the strong: the fear of the mafgiah over the lion; the fear of the mosquito over the elephant; the fear of the spider over the scorpion; the fear of the swallow over the eagle; the fear of the kilbith over the Leviathan. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: What verse alludes to these [fears of those who are strong?] [The verse from the Prophet Amos (5:9)] That strengthens the despoiled over the strong.
This paragraph in the Talmud is trying to give us a typology of five fears that each of us may examine. I do not believe that our gemara is trying to figure out what to do about them, or talk us out of them, but merely wants to understand them – not to dodge them, or ignore them, or even calm us down, but to face them head on and struggle with what they mean in our own lives.
The first fear is the one that the lion has of the mafgia. No one really knows what the word mafgia is. Even Rashi, the greatest of our commentators, says: it is a chaya ketana – a little animal who makes such a loud noise, that the lion is afraid and thinks that it is a gigantic animal. The bark of the mafgia is bigger than its bite. Other commentators think it might just be a gnat or a mongoose. The mafgia is the fear that the lion senses. This is the fear of fear itself, which holds the lion back. It is the fear that stops each of us from fulfilling the best of who we are and the best of who we can be. It is the fear that every one of us carries. It is pure psychological fear.
The second fear is the one that the elephant has of the mosquito. The elephant is an enormous creature; the mosquito - one of the smallest. But if that little mosquito gets up the trunk of the elephant – it can drive the big guy crazy! It can't kill him; but it can sure make his life miserable. Just the sound of that little mosquito alone is enough to distract. We are the elephant; terrorism is the mosquito. Perhaps terrorism can't kill us, but the fact of its existence can distract us and prevent us from moving on.
The third fear is the one that the scorpion has of the spider. My zoology may not be all that correct; but the notion here, at least according to Rashi, is that once the spider gets into the ear of the scorpion, it, in fact, can kill it. This is not a psychological fear; this is a real fear of death. The smaller animal CAN kill the larger. It is not the fear that the lion or the elephant has, but an existential fear that one day, ANY day, the scorpion may simply not be able to defend itself.
The fourth fear is the one that the eagle has of the swallow. The eagle is capable of soaring. The swallow has the possibility of getting under the eagle's wings and preventing it from flying (at least according to Rashi). Simply put: It (or we) can't gain altitude. This is moral fear. We may not be able to soar to the heights we are capable of. Just as I am afraid of terrorism and war, I am afraid that I will no longer be able to hold onto those moral, soaring beliefs and values to which I have subscribed and lived my life. How prescient: the eagle is the symbol of the United States!
The fifth fear is the one that the Leviathan has of the kilbith. What is the Leviathan? Maybe some sort of sea monster (a whale, perhaps). While we may not be able to define this animal precisely, most of Jewish literature talks about it in messianic terms. Next week we celebrate Sukkot. Rabbinic Midrash has it that someday; we will all live in a sukkah, which is made up of the skin of the Leviathan. Whatever may be meant by that statement, clearly the Leviathan lives in some sort of future time. It represents messianic time. The kilbith, by contrast, is probably a very small fish [maybe a stickleback]. Along with the psychological fear, the fear of terrorism, the fear of war, the fear of loss of moral certitude, comes the fifth fear: the loss of hope in a better future. This small creature can bring down the giant Leviathan.
These then are the five fears cast by the weak over the strong. Five fears symbolized by these five pairs of creatures. Five kinds of fear that I have heard from many of you sitting here this evening. Five kinds of fear that I, too, experience, and share. Fear of terrorism is only one of our fears following September 11: now, we fear war, fiscal loss, depression, anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, getting on an airplace, leaving our loved ones, never seeing our loved ones again, dropping our kids off at school, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge – and for some, even the fear of walking outdoors.
Susan Sontag, in the latest issue of the New Yorker writes about our fears in slightly different terms. We hear so much about the strength of America these days, where is the ambiguity? She writes:
The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…. Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what might continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that American is strong? But that's not all America has to be.
While she may overstate her case about psychotherapy a bit, her question seems to be: Can the eagle soar with the swallow under its wings?
When I learned this text, it was from a group of four Israeli rabbis sharing the day-to-day fears of life in Jerusalem. Now I recognize them as my own, as our own.
Aharon Appelfeld, the noted author, writes in that same issue of the New Yorker:
For almost a year now, Jerusalem has been under siege. Not a day goes by without something terrible happening: a man stabbed in a quiet street, a bomb exploding from a watermelon, a booby-trapped car. Just weeks ago a suicide bomber blew himself up in the center of town, injuring dozens of innocent people. Shrewd enemies, hidden from sight, are fighting in this city of stone …. [He then goes on to describe his days writing in Beit Ticho. The articles concludes:] After the attack in America I stayed up all night watching television. It had been a long time since I'd felt such identification with events that were happening so far away. The next day, when I arrived at Ticho, it occurred to me that all of us here were feeling this blow in our flesh. In modern Jewish mythology, America is the father figure who saved many Jews from the cruel Bolsheviks and Nazis by granting us a home. Now the loving father is united with his sons in a Jerusalem coffee shop, in grief over the evil that refuses to disappear from the world
These five fears have the power to immobilize our love for America, our love for Israel and even our love for our own community. I want to make sure that the terrorists who murdered innocents and wrought havoc on September 11 do not win a posthumous victory. They should not be rejoicing – wherever they are. And we must not let them.
Fact: our ancestors faced these same fears – and somehow learned to live with them and in spite of them. They identified them, labeled them, and then dealt with them openly and squarely. Their response to fear was the message of hope and the actions of hope in the language of mitzvah. They were not heroic measures; they were and are the very stuff of daily life.
We've said the prayer unetaneh tokef on Rosh Hashanah and will say it again tomorrow – those words ring loudly in our ears. Who shall live, who shall die; who by fire, who by water – but when we turn the page, there are three keys to softening the severity of the decree [or the severe decree]: they are teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – teshuvah , repentance (look at who you are, what you do and who you have become); tefillah, prayer (it is a reflexive noun – look inside as well as upwards. If you want to see God – don't look at the acts of terror and ask: why? Rather, hold up a mirror to your own face; hold up a mirror to the community, look at those pictures and hear those voices of compassion, of heroics. Those are the images of God); tzedakah, (justice, justice! – be a tzadik; give tzedakah – not charity which is discretionary money, but give to make a better society by enabling others and future generations to have the same kind of community and values you do. Invest in your future). Three powerful nouns all capable of changing the way your world and the entire world functions. Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah – three simple ordinary mitzvot that incorporate the core values of our tradition as well as act as an antidote to our fears. They are often difficult to accomplish, but they do not require superhuman efforts – they are the stuff of everyday life. The liturgy does not ask you to do something miraculous, extraordinary – it says: do just what you need to do anyway. What may be superhuman is for us to stop now and return to doing them. Live a life of mitzvot.
Live a life of mitzvot. When you came in this evening, I hope you saw and picked up this new pamphlet that has been prepared essentially for the ‘neighborhoods' for our "etzleynu bashechunah" program. These neighborhoods were created as a way of actualizing the dream of making Netivot Shalom the kind of synagogue in which members stretch their individual commitment to our tradition and to ourselves. We are building a kehillah kedosha – a holy congregation that cares about each other and our world.
Fears are real. They don't go away. Taking action is a way of having a new focal point. That's why just lying in bed doing nothing, the mosquito is more annoying and distracting than when you are involved in doing something. Action doesn't melt or dissolve the fear, but it places it in the background. Hearing an Israeli teach this text in August was moving. It seemed a uniquely Israeli story, even a Jewish story, but one step removed. Israel in late August? America in late September?
In the NY Times of Tuesday, September 25, Tom Friedman writes:
It is hard to trust anything after such an attack, because trust is based on certain presumptive morality, a sense that certain actions are simply outside the bounds of human behavior or imagination. That 19 people would take over four civilian airliners and then steer three of them into buildings loaded with thousands of innocent people was, I confess, outside the boundary of my imagination. The World Trade Center is not the place where our intelligence agencies failed. It is the place where our imaginations failed….What we know of these terrorists is that they were evil, educated and suicidal. That is a combination I have never seen before in a large group of people. People who are evil and educated don't tend to be suicidal (they get other people to kill themselves). People who are evil and suicidal don't tend to be educated….Naturally, when our imaginations fail us in such a shocking way, there is a tendency to push out the boundaries so far that we see threats everywhere and become paralyzed. We must not.
Last Yom Kippur, I stood before you and said that we had reached a stage in our own development as a kehillah kedosha that we were being held back in our determination to fully be able to articulate and act on our mission because we did not have a home of our own. I am certainly no prophet – but to be able to stand before you one year later and say that we have secured the property on which we can build our home – is absolutely thrilling. We have mounted an incredible campaign and crafted a phenomenal vision of a dynamic site. But the events of the past few weeks have caused us all to focus on the world rather than on our own little shtetl. Debby has said that we are now on "hold". Like the mosquito and the elephant, we have been distracted from our mission. Like the eagle, we are being held back by the swallow. Democracy, religious freedom, ultimate values, death, terror, fear – have been utmost on our minds – and rightly so. That is precisely what happens when trauma strikes. And now we must regain our moral wings and our dream of what can be. Our contribution to the world can be our collective vision in which we create a home where the values that we treasure, the values for which we are prepared to fight, the values which we hope to instill in ourselves, in our Berkeley community, in our world – and in our children, can be realized.
This is not a selfish response that is just for ourselves – this is a response that says that our home will be a place from which we can do tikkun olam –from which we can do those mitzvot, which have the potential for changing the world. This IS a response against isolationism. This IS a response to fear. This IS a response to depression and pessimism. Take those Etzlaynu mitzvah brochures home with you and make a commitment to yourself to add just one more to those you already do. That is what it will take to change this world. If everyone in every synagogue everywhere did just that on this Yom Kippur, our world would, in fact, be different.
Since the beginning of the month of Elul, we have read Psalm 27 daily. The composer of this Psalm starts out just where we are today – "Adonai is my light and my salvation, mimi eyra – of whom shall I fear?" He starts out with the same five fears that we know to be very real. He, too, searches for a way to respond to his very real existential state of being. Finally, after much agony and some small dreams – where does he end up? The last line: "kavey el Adonay, chazak v'yaametz libecha, vekavey el Adonai. Hope in Adonai, be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai." Hope – kavey – two times in one verse. What does it mean to hope in God? The last fear that the Leviathan has in the face of the kilbithis the greatest because it steals the future. Our response is kavey – hope, hatikva. We move to build a future lamrot hakol, despite everything or, as they say in Israel: lamrot hakol, hakol beseder – In spite of everything, all is well! We have to work on the beseder part to keep our world in order, beseder, while we at the same moment acknowledge the matzav – the situation.
Listen to the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman:
[What is hope?] Not the hope that I will pass my exam" which is thoroughly in my control, but rather …"hope against hope," hope when all of the indications suggest that I should abandon hope …Yet, from deep within me, there surges the need to hope. What is there within me that inspires that hope? That kind of hope is an act of defiance against scientific positivism, against the conviction that all truth is exclusively subject to scientific criteria of verification. It is a rejection of the imperialism of science, of the dispassionate, objective, rationalist, critical temper that paradoxically, makes science possible in the first place. But there are dimensions of our beings that cannot be accounted for by science alone. Science cannot explain or quantify love, for example, or fidelity. But what is life, without love or fidelity, or without hope?
Kavey el Adonai, hazak v'yaametz libecha v'kave el Adonai.
Hope in Adonai, be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai
Gmar chatimah tova. Or, better still, as a friend said to me: Have a not too easy fast!