Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When I was a little boy, I went through a period of time when I was terrified of intruders coming into our home. I don’t know if it was because of a frightening movie I saw or just a stage I was going through, but either way I was full of dread.
Each night before I went to sleep, I needed a non-rational ritual, which somehow, for the night, mitigated my non-rational fear. I would go to my father and tearfully tell him that I couldn’t go to sleep because I was scared that someone was going to break into our home and “get” me. He would earnestly peer into my eyes, make a muscle, and emphatically declare, “Don’t, worry Matthew, you see this muscle (in retrospect, I now know I was looking at the muscle of an English professor, not of a weightlifter), you don’t have to be scared; I will beat up anyone who ever tries to get into our home and hurt us.”
“Are you sure, Pop,” I would whimper?
“I am strong and I will always protect you,”, he would finish, as he embraced me and carried me off to sleep.
My fear of intruders somehow passed. My belief that my father could stop all of life’s ills also passed. But my fear of all types of potential maladies has not passed.
How could fear not exist for any of us, given the current state of our world? Unfortunately, the fear emanates from places not nearly as non-rational as the thoughts of my childhood.
The terror is real. The shootings are real. The wars are real. The volatility of the global economy is real.
It is human to be scared. We don’t have to pretend. There are events, which are legitimately frightening. The unknown quality of these days only emphasizes what we all know inside, but don’t like to admit: We don’t own control. So much can happen to us, if we like it or not.
The question is how we find the courage to navigate the waters of fear. We somehow have to find a way to be vigilant on one hand and continue to embrace life on the other. To be paralyzed by our fear is to deny the gift of human existence.
Paralysis inhibits us from living with meaning and purpose; it denies us the gift of embracing life. And equally as dangerous is how that same paralysis has directed some of us, of late, to objectify others and rob them of the legitimacy their humanity. To be vigilant is absolutely valid; but to cower and cast fearful and stereotypical blame, smelling of bigotry, is to suffocate our value as human beings. In both paralyzing ourselves by not embracing life; and casting blame with abandon, we completely forget who we are and why we were created in the first place.
As a dear colleague, Rabbi Josh Zweiback, wrote recently, reflecting on the great 20th Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, “Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing. Courage, true courage, is the ability to affirm being, to affirm life despite the knowledge of our own mortality.”
A member of my former congregation told me three weeks after September 11, 2001, “There is only one thing that scares me more than flying … staying home because of my fear of terrorism.”
Our courage during these terrifying days comes from healthy locomotion; not paralysis. Our bravery comes in the form of vigilance, but also from our openness to the very best of what humans were made to be.