Rabbi Josh Finkelstein
Temple Emanuel of New Jersey
Paterson and Franklin Lakes, New Jersey
Whom Shall I Fear
In Jerusalem there is a chair, an exquisite, hand crafted chair that no one sits in. An empty chair. The chair belonged to Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Tradition has it that the chair was a given to the Rebbe from a follower in 1808. The man, a simple laborer, had worked on it a few hours each day for six months. In the 1920's the chair was dismantled and put in hiding for safe keeping, and in 1936 a family escaping Europe ahead of the Holocaust brought the chair to Jerusalem.
The Rebbe's chair was restored and placed in the central yeshiva of the Bratslaver Hasidim. Since 1810 when Rebbe Nachman died without an heir or designated disciple, there has been no other Rebbe for the Bratslaver Hasidim and no one has sat in that chair. The chair is empty.
An empty chair. A symbol of hopelessness? The phrase itself conjures up a foreboding, a sense of despair, of hopelessness. Will the chair ever be filled? Will the Rebbe's place ever be occupied. Is there any hope for the future? Or just fear?
Though it remains empty to this very day, it reminds the followers of Rebbe Nachman of his teachings and of the hope and joy he instilled in his disciples. When they see that chair, they see not an empty, desolate seat, but a symbol of hope and renewal, and they are not afraid.
Their lack of fear is in keeping with One of their Rebbe’s seminal teachings. Rebbe Nachman had a saying later put to melody be his disciples:
Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher sar Meod, Veha Ikar Lo Lifahed Klal.
A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The key is not to be afraid
Last Tuesday September 11 started as a day that did not filled people with fear. The sky was blue. It was a glorious morning. All that changed suddenly. Like most of you, I can remember where I was on that morning. I was in my car headed for a meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I was listening to the traffic report, and became curious by the reporter’s mention of an explosion at the World Trade Center. I continued listening and driving when the report came that a plane hit the second tower. Approaching Fort Lee, I turned back.
Emerging from my car at the synagogue, the sky was still blue, the day still beautiful, but everything else had changed. We rent our building to the Paterson Board of Education. Each day young boys and girls come to study at theB.U.I.L.D. Academy for Leadership Development. On this day a number of children were being picked up early. Like parents elsewhere throughout the Metropolitan Area, these parents wanted to make sure their children were safe. They were scared. Tuesday had become a day of fear.
As the days have slowly passed many emotions have come to the surface of our collective psyche. There was an overwhelming sadness expressed by some. Watching the scenes in person or on television who could not be saddened beyond words at the scene of human beings falling 90 stories to their death. As days passed, stories were told. Tears would well up in our eyes as we heard of the last moments of husbands and wives, mother and fathers, sons and daughters. This one called from the 92nd floor to say good bye, a last e-mail to say I love you, a cell phone call from a plane about to crash with the simple message to tell the children that I love them. The stories are still being told much as the bodies are still being counted.
Many were shocked at the horror they were watching in disbelief. And most would eventually express anger at the monsters who would perpetrate such a heinous act. Still the overwhelming emotion is fear. Fear to ever fly again. Fear to come to synagogue on Rosh Hashannah. Fear for the future of the world. Fear of the world we live in and cannot control.
During the final moments of the year 999, according to an ancient chronicle a throng of worshipers huddled in the flickering candlelight of St Peter's basilica in Rome, weeping and trembling as they awaited the turn of the Millennium.Many were certain it would unleash an apocalyptic terror and the end of the world. So convinced were some fanatics that the apocalypse was upon them, that they gave away all their possessions and fled to the Vatican in ashes and sackcloth.At night, they prostrated themselves on the polished marble floor, their eyes closed in anticipation of the biblically prophesied end of days. As the Pope concluded the midnight liturgy, "the crowd remained rooted, motionless, transfixed, barely daring to breath, 'not a few dying from fright ... then and there."' ( Richard Edross in US News 8/16/99)
Fear is part of the human condition from our earliest imaginations. One of my favorite books is entitled Does God Have A Big Toe. It is a children’s book of stories based on biblical tales culled from the imagination of Rabbi Marc Gelman. In one story Rabbi Gelman tells about the first day of Adam’s life. Imagine what paradise must have been like. All is beautiful, all is wonderful, then the sun begins to set and night begins to fall. Adam is panicked. Remember he had never before experienced a setting sun and its beauty is only appreciated when you know it will return. Adam hides and cowers in the garden. When God finds him, Adam can only be calmed as God explains that the sun sets and rises and tomorrow will be another day. Adam is calmed as he falls asleep
Adam is a part of each of us. We each have the ability to be frightened. We would not be human, if we did not fear. At times our fear can be healthy–it can save our lives. At times our lack of fear will lead us to complacency, and will cost many their lives. Our society has shown an immense lack of fear over the past years. We created a false sense of security on which others preyed. The experience of the last week has restored a fear, that when channeled will cause us to be more cautious in the future.
Our caution will alleviate some of our anxieties but it will not fully conquer the fear that is a part of our human experience.
Remember Rebbe Nachman’s simple teaching:
Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher sar Meod, Veha 1kar Lo Lifahed Klal.
A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The key is not to be afraid.
In order to survive, to live we need to conquer that fear which is paralyzing and debilitating, while channeling the fear which fosters a sense of self preservation. We are no less human because of them. If anything, we become more human through them. Yet in order to survive and prosper in this world we cannot give into them.
How do we overcome fear and the paralysis it brings?
Once before when our nation faced dark times and hopelessness marked the day, America was reminded of its resiliency. In his first inaugural address Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded America what it has forgotten:
‘This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Roosevelt knew that to overcome fear we must advance and build. The only enemy that can vanquish us is the fear that would prevent our advancing and stop us from building a better future.
We must grow, we must advance, we must build, or we risk being conquered by our fear.
Tomorrow we will talk of building new buildings and building community, Today let us talk of building spirit and spirit builders.
One such spirit builder was my grandfather.
My grandfather Louis Finkelstein was a remarkable man. He was a shy young boy raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The son of a Lithuanian trained rabbi, he too was raised to be a Rabbi. For twelve years he served Congregation Kehilath Israel in the Bronx, until he left the Pulpit to become a full time faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
The hardest day of my Grandfather's life was when he told his father that he was leaving his congregation for a faculty position at the Seminary. "Leaving your pulpit? what's a Rabbi without a pulpit?"
Still He left his congregation for the Seminary and I fully believe he saw all of America as his new congregation. In 1951 he was appointed Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. From his new position he would endeavor to influence not only Jewish attitudes, but American culture as well.
His appointment as Chancellor coincided with a renaissance of Judaism in America and the establishment of the State of Israel. The convergence of these forces put him on the cover of Time Magazine, October 15, 1951. The focus of the article was the regeneration of Judaism in America and the mission of the Jewish Theological Seminary in America. In the article, my grandfather reminisced to the beginning of the century. He told the reporter:
"When I was a seminary student 40 years ago, it seemed so clear to us that our faith could not survive here that we wondered for what purpose in the Divine Economy the Jews had been brought to the New World."
Forty years later he looked out on a world that saw America as its best new hope for preserving Judaism. The key for my Grandfather was faith and hope. Faith in God and hope in the future. Indeed the title given to the article by the editors of Time Magazine was The Days of Fear are over.
One day near the end of my years as a student in Rabbinical School at the Seminary, I was spending an afternoon with my Grandfather at his apartment. It was at the time when Senior rabbinical students begin to look for pulpits.Talmud seemed easy compared to the challenges that laid ahead. Perhaps, my grandfather could sense my trepidations he never questioned me about them.
Instead he started talking about the world and how lucky I was. He told me how much the world had changed in his lifetime. How at my age he faced a world in the throes of depression with bleak prospects for the future. Look how far the world had come. It had survived two World Wars and now even the iron curtain was falling. More people are free than at any other time in History. When he was born a simple cut could bring infection and death, but now people were learning to conquer even cancer. To be sure there is much to be done, but look how far we
have come in the past century, imagine what you can do in your lifetime in the coming century."
The power of his message has never left me. His was a message of hope and faith that could conquer any fear. His hope and faith were contagious.
Many people have come up to me over the years and remarked about meetings they had with my Grandfather or how they heard him speak at their congregation. They invariably tell me how moved they were by him. Some say he was more prophet then Rabbi. Indeed, my grandfather was in some sense a prophet , in some sense a Rebbe, but mostly a Rabbi who taught lessons he learned in the wisdom of our holy writings.
Among those is the 27th Psalm which our people recite every morning and night during the High Holiday season. The Psalmist tells us:
Adonai Ori V'Yeeshee, MeeMee Eerah Adonai Maoz Chayai MeeMee Efhad.
The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?
The Psalmist acknowledges our fear. The underlying understanding of the Psalm is that people are afraid; Fear exists in this world–but we overcome it. When all looks lost, when enemies surround us, we need but to be resolute in our faith.
When all is falling apart the psalmist grasps even harder to his faith in God–knowing that that faith will make all the difference.
At the end of the 27th Psalm we are told:
Lulay He emanti Leerot be Tuv Adonai be Eretz Chaim
Yet I have faith that I shall see the Lord's Goodness in the land of the living.
Or perhaps we should translate the verse as
If I have faith, I will be able to see the Lord's Goodness in this world
The key to conquering our fears is to have faith to see what is good in this world. We live in a world blessed with beauty and replete with wonder. If we allow ourselves to see the wonder and beauty than we can overcome all.
I do not know of anyone who will pass a firefighter or a police officer and not reflect on the events of last Tuesday. As people were fleeing the towers hundreds of firefighters were running up stairwells looking to save lives, knowing thatdangers lies ahead.
Among the hundreds of firefighters and police officers who perished during the initial rescue efforts was one who told his family that, “the only moment of bravery for a fire fighter is when he takes his oath of office, the rest is duty.”
Thousands went above and beyond the call of duty to save strangers, and many gave their lives. That our world produces such bravery and goodness of spirit is something of which we should be proud.
A few days after the Attack on the World Trade Center, we read about Jeremy Glick. Fate put Jeremy Glick on United Airlines Flight 93 headed for San Francisco last Tuesday. When the flight was hijacked, Jeremy called his wife from his cell phone. When hearing what had happened at the World Trade Center, Jeremy conferred with several passengers. When he returned to the phone Jeremy Glick told his wife to take care of their newborn daughter and have a good life because he and a few passengers were going to storm the cockpit to try to prevent a terrorist attack on Washington D.C. I can only imagine the fear that the passengers on that plane felt facing certain death, but their fear gave way to action as they sought to make their final moments of sacrifice and goodness.
We may never know exactly what went on in that cockpit, but we do know that the plane crashed into a desolate field, killing only those people on the plane. Their gallantry in the face of death may have saved countless other lives.
If that is how they acted in the face of death, imagine how people can act when faced with life?
We need not imagine for the examples are all around us. Through the darkness of the past week we have seen moments of wonder and episodes of goodness. We see scenes of volunteers lining up to help rescue strangers who may still be alive under hundreds of thousands of tons of wreckage. Blood banks in the metropolitan Area asked potential donors to hold off because the initial outpouring was so great. Drop off centers were inundated. All this should give us pause, to reflect on the nature of goodness.
In our communities we have also seen examples of goodness emerging from the evil perpetrated by terrorists. Last Thursday I was invited to a Community Service sponsored by the Clergy Association of Franklin Lakes and Oakland and the Creative Living Counseling Center, held at Barnert Temple. While I went to give and receive support, I came away receiving uch more than I had expected. The clergy community cognizant of Temple Emanuel’s troubles with building approvals, wanted us to know that they welcome us as a member of the community. In this moment of sadness, I felt the joy of communal embrace and inclusion. I felt goodness emanating from those around and I was filled with hope for our future.
A few days later, I had a similar experience in a very different place. On Sunday I was part of an “All faith” service held on the steps of City Hall in Paterson. In my few weeks in Paterson I have developed a growing respect for the legacy and history of the city and the Jewish community that flourished here. The opportunities to meet community leaders and to know the city as it exists have been few. As I arrived at this service, I could not have felt more welcome. Ministers, priests, Imams, and civic leaders, including Mayor Barnes and Congressman Pascrell, were praying together, joining together. One of the preachers pointed out that what men had wrought for evil, God turns to good. Gathering there and walking the streets of Paterson I sensed goodness and community spirit that was special. We were not black and white, Christian, Jew, Moslem or Sikh–we were Patersonians, Americans, human beings.
Many have remarked that they were fearful of coming to the synagogue this year. Their fear stemmed from the recent terrorist attack. Since last Tuesday, a Police car has been parked in front of the synagogue 24 hours a day. Aside from security, it has afforded me the opportunity to talk with some of Paterson’s finest. In discussing the mood of the neighborhood and the city since last Tuesday, one of the officers remarked that generally there is a different feeling in the city. There is a neighborliness, a communal spirit–more so than usual. Is it permanent? I do not know, but I do know that the communal spirit has raised hope and help conquer fear.
The stories are endless. Each of us knows one or has heard one that brings out a hope for our future. For every story of tragedy, there is an image of courage and goodness that has helped sustain us in this week of mourning. When we look at these images, our faith in humanity is restored. When we read these stories we begin to see the Lord's Goodness in the land of the living.
Acts of goodness liberate us from our paralysis. Immediately we are freed from the shackles of fear and liberated from the depression of spirit. Acts of goodness have the ability to build spirit and hope. For some, the acts of goodness will bring them to God . For others, faith in God will bring them to acts of goodness. In the end the direction of the equation does not matter. In the end we will be able to rejoice with the psalmist who declares:
Kaveh el Adonai Hazak ve Ya ametz Libecha ve Kaveh el Adonai
Hope in the Lord; be strong and take courage ! Hope in the Lord
We need to learn the lesson of the psalmist. We must look at the world and see all that is good. The goodness that we see, will enable us to look toward the future with great hope, and to build that better future for us and our children.
Two hundred years ago Rebbe Nachman taught his disciples that life indeed the whole world is a narrow bridge and the essence of life is not to give in to fear. His followers learned the master’s lesson well. His chair in Jerusalemremains empty. Some say it because no one cane fill his void. I beleive it is the communities way of showing their conquest of fear. They have conquered their fear of a life without a master by having great hope in the future they build.
Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher tsar Meod, Vehaikar Lo Lifahed Klal.
A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The key is not to be afraid.
May we all be blessed this year with the strength to see all that is good in the world, and to enter this new year free of fear and full of hope.
Let me take this opportunity to wish you and your families a Shannah Tovah U'metukah A meaningful, sweet, happy and healthy and peaceful New Year from Elana, Sarah, Eli, Rebecca and me.