Facing Life’s Narrow Bridge with Courage – Rabbi Conover’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

I grew up singing the following words, a famous quote by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, whose light-hearted melody belied its profound message.

Kol ha olam koolo gesher tzar m’od

all the world is a very narrow bridge

v’ha- ikar lo lefached clal

and the essential thing is not to be afraid of anything

Yah, right …

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, who wrote these words, did not live in the time of grizzly beheadings of innocent people by Isis. Or mass shootings. Or extreme weather. Or Ebola outbreaks.

But Rebbe Nachman did live in the time of tuberculosis– his wife died of it before she reached the age of 40. Three of his children died before they lived to be toddlers. A fire burned through Bratslav. When his own home was consumed, he was forced to move to a neighboring town. That is where he died a few months later of tuberculosis.

He experienced narrowness of the world’s bridge.

Yet the world we live in now is its own unique narrow bridge-

Isis;

Hamas;

the war in Syria;

the possibility of a nuclear Iran;

rising anti-Semitism in Europe;

Boko Haram and the kidnapping of 220 school girls;

mass shootings;

earthquakes and wildfires;

Ebola;

 

Our own lives are narrow bridges-

illness;

bankruptcy;

loss of jobs;

work that takes away our dignity;

relationships that take away our dignity;

credit card debt;

student loan debt;

estrangement from family;

dying;

living but feeling dead.

 

Life is a narrow bridge.

Is the essential thing really not to be afraid?

(I realize the absurd appropriateness that the whole time I was working on this sermon about fear, I was undergoing extensive dental work…)

It’s true fear can be dangerous.

Author Karen Thompson Walker tells the true story of the voyage of a whaling ship called the Essex and the fate of its crew in 1820. After they were rammed repeatedly by an 80 foot sperm whale 2500 miles away from any continent, the captain and crew abandoned their sinking ship for tiny whale boats. While they could have safely landed at one of the nearby islands awash with fresh water, they had heard rumors that cannibals lived there. Their fear diverted them from focusing on the actual dangers of their dire situation. Their fright-filled imaginations won the day and lost most of the men their lives. They avoided the islands’ safe havens and most of the men on this voyage perished.

Yes, fear can blind us to the realities of our actual surroundings.

Tomorrow, we will hear another example of this in our Torah reading. In it, Hagar and her son Ishmael are banished from the home of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham sends them with some bread and water. Somewhere in the wilderness of Beer Sheva, the last of the water was consumed. At that point, Hagar feared that all was lost. Can you imagine the terror of that moment? That she would have to witness the death of her only son. She put him under a shrub, away from her view and wept. The text tells us that God heard the cries of

Ishmael. So an angel of God calls out to Hagar:

AI tiri- do not fear.

Stand up, lift up your son and hold onto his hand.

With that, God opened her eyes to something that had been by her the whole time that she had been too frightened and destitute to see- a life line in the form of a well of water.

Fear can be dangerous. It can blind us. It can kill us.

Life is a very narrow bridge. The trick is not to be afraid– says Rebbe Nachman.

AI tiri– do not fear– God affirms.

We hear, “AI tiri”- do not fear- and we are only too ready to say:

Ok. Let me put that feeling over there.

Fear can be dangerous,

yet denying our fears comes with its own dangers.

In a now ubiquitous Ted Talk, Bene Brown details some of those dangers. One is that when we are afraid, we make everything uncertain certain. Essentially, she says, we say to others: “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” Ah, that’s much easier than facing our fears. Yet, it closes us from seeing other points of view and other’s humanity. It stunts growth and innovation and ultimately (ironically) it ends any hope for us to become less afraid.

The other big danger is that if we numb ourselves to the feeling of fear, we often numb ourselves to other emotions as well. As Professor Brown explains:

You can’t selectively numb emotion. You can’t say: here’s the bad

stuff- here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear,

here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. [So] I’m going

to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. I don’t want

to feel these. When we numb those, we numb joy, we numb

gratitude, we numb happiness.

These are great dangers indeed. Yet, at different times in my life, when experiencing fear, I have fallen victim to all of the above. I have created countless boogy men. I have shut down potentially useful conversations by shouting down others. In scary times of transition, I have tried to numb myself to lessen my fears.

So, this summer tested me because I experienced fear in a way that I never had before.

On June 28, I arrived at Ben Gurian airport with my husband Damien, our sons Eli and Ben, and our wonderful babysitter Abi to spend a month studying in Jerusalem. My sons, 6 and 4 years old, started campthe morning after the kidnapped Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Naftali

Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach, were found dead. During my sons’ first week of camp, they became close friends with 5 boys who lived in our apartment building. These 7 boys treated each other’s apartments as if they were one shared space. During that first week of camp, they also sensed the tension of a country that experienced: a tragic national funeral for Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal; another tragedy when Palestinian boy, Muhammed Abu Khder was murdered by a group of teenage Israelis; missiles fired at Israel from Gaza– many intercepted by the Iron Dome; and air strikes on Gaza. During their second week of camp, the first missile reached Jerusalem. Our sons experienced our apartment building’s miklat (bomb shelter) for the first time and their camp moved locations to a facility with a miklat big enough to house all the children. It was then that little children at camp started using big words like missiles, Gaza and Hamas. During their third week at camp, Operation Protective Edge began. Missiles and airstrikes, tunnels and ground invasions-we were living in a very scary time.

During the waning hours of one Shabbat, we were enjoying a little late afternoon snack when we heard the sirens. Down we went to our building’s miklat for the mandatory 10 minutes. All our friends from the building were down there. But one 11 year old wasn’t there. He had gone to the nearby park to play soccer with some friends. His parents didn’t know whether they should go out and look for him or to stay in the miklat. When one of them went out after hearing the booms of the missiles’ interception, he found his son running to him.

After I put my sons to bed that evening, I heard a knock at the door. One of my friends, another mom with children our sons’ ages, came in carrying a child-sized backpack.

“Feel this,” she said.

I picked up the child-sized back pack and it felt like it was at least five pounds.

“And look.”

She unzipped the pack’s top compartment. It was filled with rusty nails. She unzipped the main pocket-large rocks. In the back pocket- shards of glass.

Her son was scared. He was afraid that a missile would land on the roof and kill him or people in his family. He gathered the weapons he could find to protect himself and them.

His mother was scared as well… Her fear was just as great, yet less immediate. Her fear was this:

She was afraid that her son’s fear of missiles

would harden into anger against all the people in Gaza

which would ossify into hatred of all Arabs.

Fear is inevitable and fear is dangerous. It carries with it the power to harden hearts. Yet, it also has the power to open hearts. If faced directly fear can help us to embrace life.

How?

By facing our fear with courage or in Hebrew- ometz lev-from ometz – boldness – and lev which means heart.

To have a boldness of heart …This is the true meaning of courage.

Now, Biblically, we don’t see that phrase. Instead, we see a different phrase often:

Chazak v-‘amatz or chizku v’imtzu – Be strong and bold … This was often used as a way of encouraging people about to go to battle.

And, having ometz on its own is pretty good. Being bold and strong in the face of fear-especially fear for our physical well-being-is essential for survival.

But ometz lev, having a bold heart, is essential for living.

Great figures like Moses who-despite his difficulty speaking-pled his people’s case before Pharaoh and Esther-who despite her comfort and safety in the palace-risked everything to save her people displayed ometz lev-true courage.

Yet, we don’t have to look that far back for an example of living with ometz lev even amidst fear. When Naftali Frankel’s mother Racheli heard about the murder of Mahmoud Abu Khdeir, she spoke out and said:

Even in the abyss of mourning for Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, it is

difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage

committed in Jerusalem- the shedding of innocent blood in

defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the

lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. Only the

murderers of our sons, along with those who sent them and those

who helped them and incited them to murder- and not innocent

people- will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and

the judiciary; not by vigilantes. No mother or father should ever

have to go through what we are going through, and we share the

pain of Mohammed’s parents.

We can learn a lot from Racheli’s ometz lev-her courage to confront her fear-her fear that her son’s death would lead to the death of other innocents. She could have been silent, but her voice-full of moral clarity and a bold heart-inspires.

And her bold hearted ness inspires us to face our own fears at home:

Our fears for our children:

  • that the world they inherit is inherently unsafe and that they will never be truly secure;

Our fears for our friends and family:

  • That they or we will prioritize petty commitments over our relationship;

Our fears about work:

  • That we will never be secure in our professional life
  • That we work too hard and are still not properly valued

Our fears about ourselves:

  • that we are not living up to the people we are meant to be.

 

Kol ha-olam koo/o-life is a very narrow bridge.

Joblessness and loneliness, Hamas and Isis, illness and crisis.

Dangers loom, and yet …

V’ha-ikar – the essence cannot easily be “do not be afraid” rather

face our fears–all of them– with a bold heart – ometz lev

– having the wisdom to speak at the right times, and when we do, always having the courage to speak from the heart; to open our eyes to reality – even when we are scared, not to be numb, knowing that when we open our eyes and our hearts, we will realize that we are not alone.

Let us face the future with courage.

As God opened Hagar’s eyes to the life line right next to her, may God open our eyes to the many life lines surrounding us in the form of family, friends, this Temple Community, and our own bold hearts.

May we follow the advice God gave to Hagar:

Stand up …. Hold on to the hands of the people whom you love and who love you.

And may this New Year of 5775, fill us with ometz lev, the courage to

welcome in this new year with bold-hearted prayers for peace.

Shanah tovah.

Facing Life’s Narrow Bridge with Courage