How do I approach the Days of Awe if I dislike fear?
It’s that time of year again.
Like a boisterous school boy willing August to stretch beyond its 31 days, I suspect I’m not alone in wishing to hold on to the last moments of summer and disregard Elul’s urgent message to shape up.
Elul spells fear of Divine Judgment and retribution, and that fear makes me nervous and uncomfortable.
I have been here before, wishing to skip the tense month of Elul with its call for self-scrutiny, demand to dig up wrongdoings I’d rather forget, and burden of guilt. Wouldn’t a gentle August to September transition be a happier way to celebrate the Jewish New Year?
One strategy I used in the past to combat this discomfort was to focus on the less daunting aspects of the Yamim Noraim: the joy evoked by the coronation of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah and the happiness of achieving atonement on Yom Kippur.
Yet eliminating the element of fear completely from the Yamim Noraim isn’t in line with the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We actually request fear — the nusach in Shemoneh Esreh says: “U’v’chein tein pachdecha Hashem Elokeinu al kol maasecha — And so grant it that Your awe, Hashem, will be upon all Your works. V’eimas’cha al kol mah shebarasa — And Your dread upon all You have created.”
Fear, it seems, isn’t just an inevitable side effect of the fact we’re being judged. It’s an integral feature of the time period, something we specifically ask for in every one of the 13 Shemoneh Esrehs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
How was I supposed to petition for the “gift” of fear while I tried so hard to avoid it?
A Single Fear
Echoing my sentiment, an eminent psychiatrist, acutely aware of the unhealthy mental toll fear has on mankind, once suggested to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ztz”l that if he had the authority, he would omit this tefillah. Why should we pray for fear when fear, or anxiety, is one of the major causes of mental illness?
“Everyone seems to be beset with fears of all kinds,” the Rav replied. “Some are afraid that they won’t be able to succeed in their careers, others fear losing their wealth or status or that they will fail to attain sufficient prominence. Many people are afraid of sickness and bodily weakness. In generations past, fear of leprosy engulfed the world; today people live in fear of a cancerous growth. Many people don’t go to see a doctor even when they have pains, lest he diagnose them with the dreaded disease.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but I do know that one major source of fear can wipe out all of these lesser fears. What fear can overtake man, thereby uprooting all other fears, such as that of failure, of poverty, of old age, of rejection or of disease? Only the fear of the L-rd! That’s the reason behind the expression in the High Holy Day prayer, “Cast [Your] fear, O L-rd our G-d, upon all [Your] handiwork and [Your] awe upon all that [You have] created.” We pray that this great fear will free us from those other ones which lurk everywhere, upsetting our lives” (On Repentance, p. 223).
Or, as Rabbi Rachamim Buchris of Djerba so eloquently put it: “If you fear the One, you will fear no one. If you don’t fear the One, you will fear everyone.”
This was the beautiful message the prominent Dayan of Djerba gave to his anxious son, when he was about to embark on the hazardous trip to Eretz Yisrael. In the late 1800s, the sea voyage from Tunisia to the Holy Land was fraught with danger. But the Dayan was telling his son that he need only fear One.
A fear-free life isn’t an attainable goal. Nor is it even desirable. We’re hard-wired to experience fear. We need fear. It keeps us from harm. It protects us from walking off a cliff. From getting burned. From entering a place of mortal danger. It’s a survival instinct, a gift from Hashem. Yet like any one other emotion, it has to be balanced to allow us to function well.
On the Yamim Noraim, we’re not asking for anxieties or phobias. Our tefillos to be granted fear of Heaven are a remedy for all the lesser fears that threaten our mental well-being.
With that in mind, we can understand the frequent commandment addressed to the giants of faith in the Torah when they faced dire circumstances: “Al tirah — fear not!” implying that they felt fear, too.
The most courageous righteous men — Avraham, Moshe, Dovid — weren’t fearless. Only a fool is fearless when dangers are real (see Abarbanel on Bereishis 32:8). The hero is the one who hears Hashem’s urging “al tirah” and acts in spite of his fears.
In most instances, the instruction not to fear impending dangers is followed by reassurance of Hashem’s presence, such as when Hashem tells Avraham (Bereishis 15:1), “Al tirah, Avram, Anochi magen lach — Don’t fear, Avram, I’m protecting you.”
Just when they felt most vulnerable, most alone, so many of our neviim heard and delivered Hashem’s message of hope (Yehoshua 1:9), “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your Hashem.”
As we edge our way closer to Hashem through the month of Elul, slowly closing the gap that has separated us from Him, we come to Rosh Hashanah and plead to be imbued with yiras Shamayim that will release us of all our debilitating fears. We ask to be constantly cognizant of the heavenly umbrella, metaphorically speaking, so that we don’t need to worry about the external factors battering us, to focus on the One and Only Who is really in control of every aspect of our lives.
We conclude the tefillos of the Yamim Noraim with the verse from Tehillim incorporated in the hauntingly beautiful piyut Adon Olam, “Hashem li, v’lo irah — Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.”
We sing these treasured words as we make our way from shul to the outside world. Armed with an internal fear of Hashem, we’re liberated of all other earthly fears, and ready to face with courage the perils of the outside.
With the fear of the One deeply entrenched in our hearts, we fear no one. What a reassuring way to start a new year.
Chani Gotlieb is a dynamic and experienced educator. She teaches and lectures widely on Jewish ethics, Jewish history, and Tanach.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 756)
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