Years ago when I lived in suburban NJ, there was a break-in in our neighborhood. We already had a burglar alarm in our house, so we added to the front porch the only extra security measure we could think of: a big dog-food bowl. We did not have a dog. But we were going to scare those intruders away! To make it seem real, we painted onto the bowl the name of our fake dog: Shomer, Hebrew for “guard.” Once guarded by Shomer, in our alarm-shielded house, we proceeded to protect ourselves with a light-timer, for evenings when we were out…
How much worry is too much worry? Some of our concerns and precautions are well-founded. But there is a point when our energy is so channeled into the worry that we are at risk of losing our focus and our purpose. Meanwhile, the anxiety reduces us, to wasted grief.
As we think about our roles in civic life, teaching, parenting, business, politics, it is important to consider: where do I have control and what is beyond my control?
Since Nov. 8, we have seen that many citizens feel their voices were heard in the campaign; many who did not feel heard, are now seeking ways to influence our nation and world. It is heartening to see people rededicated to social justice; yet the urgency has created a curious energy. On the one hand, hate-speech demands our attention, and we cannot accept threats targeting vulnerable groups. On the other hand, daily outrage at hate speech and worrisome policy proposals puts too many of us in a dizzying state of amplified anxiety, that we cannot sustain in a productive or healthy way.
The Hasidic master Rav Nachman of Bratzlov understands the tension between complacency and anxiety. Rav Nachman teaches there are 2 kinds of fear– pachad and yirah. Pachad is when fear translates into anxiety. Pachad is unproductive, it hides our courage and holds us back. Yirah is when fear translates to reverence for God, and for God’s holy world. Yirah is inspirational, it uncovers our courage and urges us forward.
In the tension between complacency and anxiety, we encounter the challenge of unsustainable daily outrage. Rav Nachman’s concept of Pachad, in modern terms, can be linked to our understanding of fight or flight–the reaction that is activated the moment you the face of a bear in the woods, and then is de-activated once the bear runs away. Today, if you endure panic-provoking facebook post after post or 24-hour news stations, then you might maintain ongoing active anxiety, and drain your physical and emotional resources. Through prayer, healthy habits, meditation, community and mental health care, we need to find ways to overcome anxiety.
In the tension between complacency and anxiety, we encounter the challenge to resist acceptance. In J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and A Culture in Crisis, a Yale-educated lawyer who was raised in Appalachia, tells his story of rare success. His description of economic insecurity, gun culture, addiction, and absence of work ethic or social structures, among the white working class of his childhood, sheds light on a part of America who felt heard in the election. Strikingly, Vance says if there were one thing he could change about the white working class, it would be “to change the feeling that our choices don’t matter.” The belief that nothing they do can positively impact their circumstance, demonstrates a despair that can lead to complacency.
Here in our part of the country, one with some different challenges, we too can feel overwhelmed by injustices and tempted by acceptance. Perhaps we all suffer from that question: What is my impact? Through study, action and community, we need to find ways to overcome complacency.
In this season, how can we remain tuned into the injustices that demand our attention, without submitting to the perpetual anxiety of the bear?
This is the role of Jewish wisdom. The values from our tradition steer us away from complacency; the spiritual and prayer life in our tradition steer us away from drowning in anxiety.
This week’s Torah portion brings us a message about our values, and about our spiritual journey to discover our role. Our patriarch Jacob dreams that a sulam, a stairway is set on the ground, its top reaches to the sky, and angels of God are going up and then down on it. Funny–you might expect that angels of God are traveling down the sulam to earth, and returning back up to the heavens. But these angels start on the ground. Here, among us. Could these angels be you and me? And if so, how can we be messengers of Jewish values and Jewish spiritual life?
The midrash, suggests the values are embedded in the word sulam: Count up the numerical value of the letters in stairway–sulam–and it adds to 130. The same numerical value for the word Sinai–the location and symbol of the revelation of Torah—God’s purpose for us. So closely linked to Sinai, the stairway has the potential to guide us towards the Jewish values from our tradition, that steer us away from complacency. The value that Exodus teaches: Love the stranger, for you have been there. The value the Talmud teaches: The first person was created alone for the sake of peace among people, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’ Our values are right there in the Torah of Sinai and the sulam.
Contemporary Torah commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, suggests a guide for our spiritual life is embedded in the sulam. He interprets the stairway to heaven as a model for prayer. We climb the sulam, encounter the divine and return as an agent of God. Together in community we invite prayer–contemplation–meditation–to interrupt our days, to enlighten our perspective, to steer us away from drowning in anxiety. Our spiritual guide is right there in the sulam.
At Rodeph Shalom, many of you are sharing ideas that have come from your own sulam climb—your pursuit of Jewish values and of the kind of contemplation that leads to discovering our role—our mitzvah. One of you is helping our Tot Shabbat community to invite Muslim families next month. One of you is writing in your community to encourage people to meet their neighbors. One of you asked if we could create a relationship with a community in Appalachia, to better understand their perspectives. Some of you are expanding our efforts to partner with HIAS and support new immigrants to Philadelphia. Some of you have been reading the memoir Waking Up White and have expressed interest in a discussion group about race in America. Our Men of RS group is partnering with the Anti-Defamation League to offer all of us sessions about Anti-semitism, Anti-Israel hate and racial bias. You can find specific “For the Sake of Peace Among People” mitzvah opportunities on our website.
More and more, we in our congregation need to climb the sulam, discover our purpose, and return with clarity about our mitzvah—our sacred action.
Jacob awakens from his dream with a realization of his purpose and of the divine. He is shaken, vayirah, the text says, the same word Rav Nachman taught all those years later. When Jacob awakens, with yirah, he is shaken with the kind of fear that translates to awe–reverence for God and for God’s holy world. When we awaken with yirah, we are shaken with reverence for God and God’s holy world. Yirah inspires us, it uncovers our courage, and urges us forward.
With Yirah, with fear and awe of the divine, may we be guided towards acts of righteousness.
With Yirah may we commit to defying hate.
With Yirah may we proudly express our Jewish identity and stand against anti-Semitism.
With Yirah may we devote ourselves to protecting the immigrant, the stranger, the vulnerable.
With Yirah, may we see the divine in the eyes of every human being.