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Sermons and Thoughts

Embracing our Fear

26 September 2022
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

When Franklin Roosevelt first became president of the United States in 1933, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression.

In the opening paragraph of his inauguration address, President Roosevelt said the following bold words:

“… let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”[i]

Fear – it is a powerful emotion; an emotion that we have sadly grown accustomed to throughout the years of the pandemic. Fear that we had hoped to leave behind as vaccines made the threat of Covid feel more liveable with. And yet, fear has remained with us as a society affecting so many of us: fear of the cost-of-living crisis and fear whether the government’s gamble with our economy will end well, fear for our friends in our Ukrainian twin congregations and all who are directly impacted by Russia’s war of aggression,
fear that Putin’s threats of nuclear war might not be idle words only, fear of the impact of the climate emergency. A litany of fear.

How are we to respond to all this fear that surrounds us? Is Roosevelt right to suggest that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?

It certainly is a very human instinct to respond to seeing fear with a reassuring ‘don’t be afraid.’ I’m sure we have all done it. In our Torah portion of today, even God does it: “al tiri – do not be afraid,” the messenger of God calls out to Hagar as she sits in the wilderness, Ishmael a short distance away, fearing death by thirst and hunger. “Al tiri – do not be afraid!”

As my American colleague Rabbi Claudia Kreiman pointed out to me: God is in the habit of telling us not to be afraid. God reassures each of our ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[ii] And time and again God says ‘Al Tira’ to our prophets, when they fear that they are not up to the task of leading the people of Israel. “Fear not, for I am with you, Be not frightened, for I am your God” – God says to Isaiah.

There is indeed great comfort in these reassurances. But I am sure we all recognise that being told not to be afraid can sometimes feel terribly dismissive of the very real fear that we experience. And while we do indeed see in our textual tradition a powerful theme of reassuringly dismissing fear, our liturgy for these most sacred days, for our High Holy Days, for the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe or as it may also be translated, the Days of Fear—also presents a different response. Rather than dismissing fear, inviting us not to be afraid, our liturgy calls on us to face our fear. We see this most powerfully in the piyyut, the liturgical poem, Unetanneh Tokef (p. 39 & 40 in your booklets).

The legend as told in the 13th century commentary Or Zarua, suggests that Unetanneh Tokef was composed by an 11th-century sage named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon is pressured to convert to Christianity by the Archbishop of Mainz. As a delay tactic, he requests three days to consider the offer; immediately regretting even giving the pretence that he could possibly accept another religion. After three days spent in prayer, he refuses to come to the archbishop.

Finally, he is forcibly brought to the archbishop’s palace, where he begs that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin. Instead, the archbishop orders his hands and legs amputated — limb by limb — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon is again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. With his severed extremities, lying on a knight’s shield, he is sent home.

As he lies dying, Rabbi Amnon asks to be carried to the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, where he recites the original composition of the Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath.

Three days later, he appears in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam, one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, and begs him to transcribe the prayer and to see that it is included in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus, the legend concludes, Unetanneh Tokef became a part of the standard liturgy.

We know today for certain that the story of Rabbi Amnon is merely a gruesome legend for a copy of the poem was found in the Cairo Genizah, in a prayer book dating back to the 8th century with some scholars suggesting that the text might have originated as early as the 6th century. And still, the legend powerfully resonates as so much of the language of the poem seems to testify to the intense persecution of Jews at the time of the Crusades:

“who will live and who will die;

who by fire and who by water;

who by war and who by beast;

who by famine and who by drought;

who by earthquake and who by plague;

who by strangling and who by stoning;

who will be calm and who tormented;

who will live in poverty and who in prosperity; …”

And yes, for those who are wondering – there is a famous version by the great modern Psalmist Leonard Cohen.

This difficult passage from the poem reflects the Talmudic theology found in bRosh Hashanah 16b:

On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened [in Heaven] – one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in-between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life. The thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death. The fate of those in-between is postponed from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, at which time those who are deserving are then inscribed in the Book of Life, those who are undeserving are then inscribed in the Book of Death.

As Rabbi Aaron highlighted in his Rosh Hashanah sermon a few years ago,[iii] this theology was seen as deeply problematic by Liberal Jews. Yet while the theology of Unetaneh Tokef is troubling parts were included in Machzor Ruach Chadashah. But not ‘Who By Fire,’ as our Emeritus Rabbi Dr. Andrew Goldstein, one of the editors of the Machzor, explains: “I just cannot believe in a God who decides who will live and who will die, and I do not find it acceptable to ask the congregation to make such assertions at the most sacred services of the Jewish year.”

Having reintroduced the ‘Who by fire’ passage during the pandemic – a time when it seemed particularly poignant to reflect on how we face mortality – why have we chosen to retain the passage in the new booklets that we are using for today’s service?

Has our Liberal Jewish theology shifted? I don’ really think so. Like Rabbi Andrew I also do not believe in a God who decides who will live and who will die, and my guess is not so many in the congregation today do. But if not our theology, what has shifted? I would like to suggest that the shift, which has happened in the last few years of liturgical development within Liberal Judaism, is our understanding of prayer language. Our movement’s early liturgists focused primarily on language as conveying a message, as expressing theology. Consequently, Rabbi John Rayner asserted: “We may not say with our lips, what we do not believe in our hearts.”

However, as I have discussed before, there are different ways in which language works. The classic linguist Roman Jakobson (1896– 1982)[iv] highlights that rather than conveying a message, what we say sometimes conveys our emotions instead. We might use exactly the same words but what we are trying to convey to the listener can be radically different:

Think of a person pointing out a cat on a carpet: “the cat is sitting on the carpet” simply conveys a reality to the listener. But when said in a slightly different tone, the statement “the cat is sitting on the carpet” might instead convey the dismay of the speaker who is seeing a cat sitting on their expensive carpet about to ruin it. The point of making the statement in this case is not to convey a reality but rather an emotion.

Rather than understanding the ‘who by fire’ section as a fatalistic description of a judging God, I want to invite us to consider the words as an expression of fear of our ancestors – a fear that we can relate to especially at this season of refection. Confronting our own mortality, we too experience fear not only that our days are numbered but that, just as we wish for a good life, we wish for a good death.

‘Embrace your fear’ the Unetanneh Tokef calls to us – don’t be afraid to show it, you are not the only one who is afraid.

The story of Hagar is, as the modern Bible scholar Phyllis Trible calls it, a tale of terror.[v] It is a story that as the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow put it, “…makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, … the Torah holds up a mirror …”[vi] It is a story of jealousy, of violence and of fear.

But the story of Hagar is also a story of incredible resilience. Our colleague Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah observes in her book Trouble-making Judaism: “[O]ut of her distress, [Hagar] heard God’s voice and she found the words to express her experience. And so she becomes a model for each and every one of us – particularly for all those who have not had the courage to speak yet or whose voices have not been heard.”[vii] It is not the absence of fear that signifies resilience. But rather that Hagar is able to face her fear, able to embrace her pain, and then able to open her eyes to see the well of water that was already there within reach. So maybe there is an alternative way of interpreting God’s call “Al tiri – do not be afraid.” Maybe God isn’t telling Hagar not to have fear, but rather that she should not be held back by her fear.

In his beautiful sermon for S’lichot, Rabbi Andrew reminded us of the famous words by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: the whole world is a very narrow bridge but the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.

Working on this sermon, I decided to return to Rabbi Nachman’s famous words and made a fascinating discovery. Rabbi Nachman didn’t say: the whole world is a very narrow bridge, as we sing. Instead, he said: “Know, a person needs to cross a very, very narrow bridge.” It’s not the case that the whole world is one big challenge to overcome but neither can we pretend that challenges and the fear that accompanies those does not exist.

And there is another interesting thing to note: unlike what we sing today – Rabbi Nachman’s teaching uses the verb for fear – pachad in the reflexive form rather than the intense active. Rabbi Nachman doesn’t say have no fear – instead he teaches that we should not cause ourselves to be afraid, to let ourselves be held back by our fear.

So, as we are gathered here at the cusp of a new year, with all our fears, let us find comfort in our liturgy to voice our fear. And as we prepare to cross the narrow bridges that lie ahead, let us learn from the story of Hagar and pay head to Rabbi Nachman’s teaching:

V’da, she ha’adam tzarich la’avor al gesher tzar me’od me’od, v’haklal v’haikar—sh’lo yitpached klal – Know that we must cross over that very, very narrow bridge, but even when we are afraid, let us remember that we can support each other so that our fear will not hold us back from seeing hope which might already be within reach.

[i] I gratefully acknowledge Rabbi David Wolkenfeld who pointed me to this sentence from Roosevelt’s address.

[ii] C. Kreiman, ‘Al Tir’ee, Do Not Fear’ – Sermon First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5772, September 2011

[iii] A. Goldstein, ‘Poetic Vision’ – sermon Rosh Hashanah Morning 5781

[iv] Jakobson R., “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language (ed. Thomas Sebeok), 1960

[v] Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Judith Plaskow in The Torah A Women’s Commentary (eds. T. Eskenazi, A. Weiss). URJ Press.

[vii] E. Tikvah-Sarah, Trouble-making Judaism, Chapter 6, David Paul.