Rabbi Susan Friedman
When I was a girl, a dream of mine came true. All during my elementary school years I yearned to attend a particular private high school in Brooklyn. It was called Yeshiva University High School for Girls. It was famous in my world for the quality of its Jewish and secular studies. While I was a competent student, my education didn't seem to be leading me there. I attended public schools and had a spotty Jewish education. We moved far away from New York City, and the possibility of commuting to a school in Brooklyn seemed remote. And yet, as circumstances would have it, in September 1956 I found myself a freshman at the school of my dreams. We were seated alphabetically. My name was Gevirtz. In my row, to my right sat Sharon Friedkin, a girl with whom I'd done a tour of duty at Bais Ya'akov of Brownsville. To her right sat Jane Fishman.
Last fall I went to a Raleigh-Cary Hadassah dinner. A woman came up to me and said: "I think we may have gone to school together." Before me stood long-time Beth Meyer congregant, Jane Fishman Loewy. That meeting brought back a flood of memories for me.
Recently, Jane came to the dedication of Beth Shalom, and said, " Do you remember that teacher that used to put up sayings on the board every day?"
Indeed I did remember him, for though the school turned out to be very far from the wonderful place I had imagined, this particular teacher stood out for his kindness and generosity . Every day he put up a different inspirational quote and urged us to learn it. Many of those sayings are implanted in my mind.
Better a good friend than a remote brother.
Change your neighborhood and change your luck.
If you fail to join your community in its time of joy, do not expect it to be there for you in times of sorrow
Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except Yirat Heaven
It was that last one that is most fixed in my mind.
It called to mind a sentence in the morning prayer I was taught as the littlest girl.
After thanking God for returning my soul to me I would quote a verse from proverbs: "The beginning of wisdom is Yirat Adonai"
The Hebrew Yir'ah, can be translated as fear or as awe or wonder—So these text can be read "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven," and "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Adonai." Or they can be statements that the beginning of wisdom is awe or wonder of Adonai. The choice of translation is a reflection of the inner experience of the translator.
Fear and awe are partners, two views of the world. In the atmosphere in which we live today, fear sits crouching in the back of many of our minds. It can destroy us by it's very presence, no matter how powerful we are. It is our task, our responsibility to reimagine the experience as one of awe and wonder.
Our Rabbis taught:
There are five instances of fear cast by the weak over the strong:
the fear of the magaifa over the lion
the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant
the fear of the spider upon the scorpion
the fear of the swallow upon the eagle
the fear of the kilbith over the Leviathan.
On September 6, 2001, I was privileged to listen as the Dean of Students of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Rabbi Michael Marmur, delivered an examination of this text. Since my sermons were already outlined, I never intended to do more with his words than consider them. But, a week later, I found myself wishing I had taken better notes. Much to my good fortune, a tape of his address arrived in the mail late last week.
I would like to share with you my reflections on Rabbi Marmur's remarks:
the fear of the magaifa over the lion
The first of these fears is the fear of the "mafgia" over the lion. No one seems to know just what a "mafgia" is. It is hard to think of what animals are capable of attacking a lion successfully. It is not for nothing that the lion is known as King of the Jungle. And yet some things do incite fear in the lion. We know, because we have seen lions in flight. Rashi, the great interpreter of the most rational explanations for Torah suggests that the "mafgia" is a small animal with a big voice. When the lion hears it, he is afraid that a large beast is approaching and runs away.
Thus, the "mafgia," evokes an image in the mind of the lion, and it is the image that the lion imagines that frightens him. The lion is frightened by the workings of his own mind.
The anger and rage evoked by our attackers has stirred up a fear in each of us as to the possible reactions here among us. This has been reflected in reactions towards people who look or dress in any way that evokes thought of our attackers. Our own minds, which could not conceive of the collapse of the Twin Towers, suddenly see danger in every crevice.
the fear the elephant has of the ant.
The second fear that the rabbis discuss is the fear the elephant has of the ant. Certainly, the mosquito is incapable of delivering a bite to the elephant that is lethal. Still, the elephant is aware that an ant can crawl up its trunk or in its ear and settle in and drive it crazy. The elephant is aware of and frightened by its own vulnerability.,
We, like the elephant have become acutely aware that in our openness as a society we are vulnerable. The elephant has no ability to close up its trunk or its ear to prevent the entrance of the mosquito. It must trust in the odds of the event actually happening—it has to remain an elephant.
We, on the other hand, have some control as to whether we are going to stop up openings that have defined us until now.
We get to decide whether our vulnerability is part of who we are, organic, or not. We must, at least, consider the price we pay for giving up that vulnerability.
the fear the scorpion has of the spider
The third fear is the fear the scorpion has of the spider. The scorpion, at the height of its strength has no difficulty overcoming the spider. Yet at some point it may lose its strength and find itself face to face with a spider it cannot master. The scorpion fears its limitations.
The world has seen nations rise and fall. We have a sense that civilizations have a limited life. Have we reached the borders of our vision? While we may live in fear that the time has come for Western Civilization to fall, unless we are prepared to live with the consequences we will have to act despite this fear.
the fear that the eagle has of the sparrow
Fourth is the fear that the eagle has of the sparrow. Again, normally, it is the sparrow that is prey to the eagle. But Rashi tells us that sometimes, the sparrow creeps under the wings of the eagle and hinders it from spreading its wings. The eagle is afraid of not being able to put forth its full power and energy. It fears a confounding of its will.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. That is what will keep us from soaring. We will have to discipline ourselves to do the work of clearing out obstacles to focusing our will. We will have to have the capacity to turn off those voices that erode our capacity to think clearly.
the fear that the Leviathan has of the "Kilbith"
Finally, there is the fear that the Leviathan has of the "Kilbith" a small fish. Here, I think we miss out on something if we insist, as Marmur does, on seeing the Leviathan as a real animal, a whale or a crocodile. Rather, I think the Leviathan is that mythical creature that is larger than life which is vulnerable to mundane realities far smaller than itself.
If we allow our large and wondrous dreams to be gnawed away by present petty realities we will have lost not just a battle, but the war itself. This, we cannot allow to happen.
How then shall we prevent it? How shall we take our fears and transform them into awe—awe for the courage we are capable of mustering, awe for the wonder of our resilience?
For this I turn to a second teacher who taught on September 6—Rabbi Levi Weinman-Kelman, rabbi of Kol Hanishamah in Jerusalem. He points us to Psalm 146. The psalm tells us:
5Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help,
whose hope is in the Adonai his God,
6maker of heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7who secures justice for those who are wronged,
gives food to the hungry.
Adonai sets prisoners free;
8 Adonai restores sight to the blind;
Adonai makes those who are bent stand straight;
Adonai loves the righteous;
9 Adonai watches over the stranger;
gives courage to the orphan and widow,
but makes the path of the wicked tortuous.
10 Adonai shall reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
The reign of Adonai requires courageous human action in the face of fear and anxiety. It requires a reaching out, an embracing. It requires faith coupled with action.
It requires our efforts to secure justice for those who are wronged,
It requires us to give food to the hungry.
It requires us to find people wrongfully imprisoned and to set them free;
It requires us to address blindness in its many forms;
To relieve the burden of the oppressed;
We must stand up for the righteous;
And watch over the stranger;
give courage to the orphan and widow,
but make the path of the wicked tortuous.
We at Beth Shalom want to encourage our friends and neighbors to reach out to each other. We would like to create a space in which we can come and talk about our fears, our efforts, our concerns with others, to gain courage from each other and to watch and join as we each gain respect and awe for our capacity to deal with life's adversities. To that end, we ask you to make use of the sign-up sheets outside or email or call Beth Shalom to express your interest in participating in a group conversation, and the times you are available.
In addition, some of our members have agreed to participate on a panel that will address specific questions that you may have about your fears and how to handle them. Once a week we will send out an email to the congregation with responses to the inquiries made that week. Consult the next issue of the Beth Shalom Bulletin for further information.
The Lord will reign for ever, your God, o Zion for all generations. Hallelujah