How Do We Move Forward in the Face of Fear?

Baruch ata Adonai matir assurim – Blessed are You Adonai who frees the captives.

I only heard about Saturday’s hostage standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas when I turned my phone back on after Shabbat. Initially, I felt shocked and deeply worried until the hostages made it safely out of the building.  It is remarkable that all four hostages escaped without physical injury.  I can only imagine how terrified they were, how terrified their families were, along with the members of the community who began Shabbat morning in prayer together and then looked on in fear as the peace of Shabbat turned into terror.   

And then it was over and I had to attend to other things.  I am noticing that it wasn’t until Sunday night, when I was speaking with my dear friend and fellow rabbi, Shira Stutman, about being rabbis at this moment in history, about what we might say to our communities in comfort and in guidance for how we move forward, that I could feel the ripples of rage and sadness and fear rising to the surface.  Sometimes fear has the effect of paralyzing and dominating us and driving all our thoughts and actions, and sometimes fear has the effect of numbing us, distancing us from the realities we are facing.  Wise responses to this event, and to antisemitism more broadly, can only arise from attending to the feelings and reactions that are stirred up or buried beneath, until we can move ourselves toward clear discernment and wise, values-centred choices. 

I am angry at the twisted antisemitic beliefs, being shared more frequently, publicly and without strong enough opposition, that Jews control the world.  As Rabbi Cytron-Walker put it, referring to the assailant, “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ (referring to his phone calls to NY rabbi, Angela Buchdahl) and he would get what he needed.”  Antisemitism is expressed in blaming Jews, terrorizing us and isolating us from the support and partnership of others.  It is a belief that threatens Jews everywhere, and it is an ongoing threat to the democratic commitments and work of building a society that is safe and just for everyone.

Its effect on me, its effect on Jews generally, is that it makes us angry.  It makes us feel scared and vulnerable.  And it makes us feel more alone in the world. 

I am seeing a lot of messages from Jewish leaders reassuring our communities that we will increase security in our Jewish buildings and gathering spaces, that we will all take trainings so we are prepared to respond to threatening situations.  Yes, it is important that we face the realities of antisemitism, speak out against it and work to eliminate it.  It is important that we have the systems, skills and knowledge to protect ourselves and to act effectively in various dangerous situations.  But I also don’t want the energy, focus and money of Jewish community to predominantly become channeled toward cameras and security guards, emergency trainings and fighting antisemitism at the expense of strengthening Jewish life and strengthening our partnerships with other religious and justice-oriented communities in common cause.

So how do we move forward wisely?  How do we find the balance between intelligently protecting ourselves and preparing for the world we are living in, while, just as intelligently, to build the world we want, for all of us, and develop the capacity and the support not to live in fear?

The Torah portion that was read on the Shabbat of the standoff was Parshat Bo.  As the Israelites finally escape from Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt), they reach the Sea of Reeds and have nowhere to go.  The pursuing Mitzrim (Egyptians) are closing in.  They cry out in terror.  In his book, Be Still and Get Going, Rabbi Alan Lew astutely lifts up this biblical moment as a spiritual teaching and practice in moving forward when we are afraid.  God instructs the Israelites with 5 key verbs.  1) Al tira’u – don’t be afraid, or better framed as – don’t let fear paralyze or dominate you; 2) Hityatzvu – ground yourselves.  Connect with the deep sources of strength and courage, goodness, values and insight that are bigger than the fear;  3) U’ru – look and see the sources of liberation that are right here, the partners gathered around you and walking with you.  Even if you feel alone, look and see that others are joining with you and look for those you can reach out to and call upon.  4) Tacharishun – be still.  In the presence of the voices of panic and urgency or avoidance and retreat, listen more deeply for the wisdom that can only arise out of settled and attuned silence; 5) Va’yisa’u – get going.  Move forward, take action, speak out, build a strong and just society, not in reactivity or gripped by fear, but from the clarity, connection and groundedness of these other practices.

Grant, Adonai, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of your peace.

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