Fear and Meaning

I was working late recently, trying to finish up some preparations for the Holidays. Most of my sermons were done, the new mahzor was ready to go, the choreography of the service was as ready as it was going to be, given all of the moving parts. I was looking around for a few last pieces of inspiration, a few more ideas that I could bring into the services.

I turned to Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, both hoping that it would inspire me, and also to give myself a short break from thinking about the chagim. I came across a passage that described how we never know when something will be the last.

“No child knows when he last calls his mother ‘Mama.’ No small boy knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story that will ever be read to him. No boy knows when the water drains from the last bath he will ever take with his brother…No mother knows she is hearing the word Mama for the last time. No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will ever read”

These words – even as I read them now – evoke a melancholy desperation, a sense that anything could be the last one, and so we had better hold onto them until we wring out the last bit of emotion, the last bit of meaning that they contain. And then we have to do it with the next thing that happens, and the next one after that,  because that could be the last one as well. I read these words, and I felt my heart start to pound. My stress level shot up. It was late at night – I looked at the clock and saw that I had missed bedtime for both Eliza and Nathaniel. I missed the opportunity to read Eliza that bedtime story, I didn’t give her a bath. I didn’t rock Nathaniel to sleep, or even kiss him goodnight. Instead I was sitting in my office, alone in the PJC, and I didn’t even have a meeting to justify my absence from home.

This feeling of desperation, the emotional urgency of this passage fits very well with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Each morning we read the Unetaneh Tokef, a poem and prayer that reflects on the fragility of life, and the importance of these days. We read about the possible fates that could befall us in the coming year: fire, drowning, starvation, natural disasters, exile, impoverishment. We remind ourselves that each year could be our last, each day could be our last, and so much of it is outside of our power.

For many, this prayer is upsetting and offensive, its theology repellant and its message alarming. The image of a God who might write down such a fate for one of us – no matter our sins – is not an image that we want to contemplate. Some of that rejection is honestly theological; our experience of the world does not fit with the idea that pain and suffering is the earned result of sin. But some of that rejection – at least for me – comes from a place of fear. I don’t want to contemplate the idea that any of these tragedies might befall me, or - God forbid - someone I love.

I think it is possible, that this reaction, this fear that I feel, is exactly the emotion that the author is trying to evoke. After all, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the ימים נוראים, commonly known as the Days of Awe, but perhaps more accurately, as the Days of Fear.

We don’t call them that, because who would want to come to synagogue for services that focus on fear? Fear is only desirable when it comes in the context of the adrenaline rush some people get when they watch a horror movie or visit a haunted house. Instead we talk about the עשרת ימי תשובה, the Ten Days of Repentance. Repentance, atonement, and returning are good topics. Everyone can get behind the idea of apologizing for our sins, and fostering positive relationships.

And we can do that without fear. We can do that by emphasizing love, and relationship, and meaning. We don’t have to talk about the impermanence of life, about its uncertainty in order to realize that the people next to us matter, and that we need to act with them and towards them in a way that demonstrates our love.

But one of the important themes of the High Holidays is that so much in our lives is outside of our control. That theme is given its clearest expression in the Unetaneh Tokef. In the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina builds on this concept. He taught: Everything is in Heaven's hands except the fear of Heaven, as it says [in the Torah], "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God…”

Rabbi Hanina saw the fear of heaven as the basis for a moral life, and a life that followed God’s laws. He believed that our fear of God, and our fear of Divine retribution, would give us the motivation that we need to act in the world, to follow the laws of the Torah, and to care for our fellow human beings. Rabbi Hanina’s perspective would teach us to stop trying to control the world around us, and to instead act correctly because we fear punishment – and what that punishment might make us lose.

And so when I step away from the Unetaneh Tokef, I feel the fear that might be at the core of the ימים נוראים, I am afraid of what might happen, and what I might not get to experience anymore. It is the same way I felt reading that passage from Safran Foer’s book. A fear, and an almost compulsive need to spend time with the people that matter to me, to have meaningful and fulfilling interactions.

This fear motivates me to act, just as Rabbi Hanina hoped that it would, to pay more attention to my spiritual life, and to pay more attention to my family. That night when I read the passage in Safran Foer’s book, I went home, and checked on both of my children. I moved Nathaniel so that he was in a more comfortable position, and I sat in Eliza’s room, watching her sleep.

Fear can motivate us to act. Fear of punishment and repercussions are often necessary components of teaching someone to do the right thing. But a fear of loss can also lead to paralysis. If I am afraid of losing someone or something, I will want to hold on as tightly as I can, for as long as I can. I will worry and fret about what might happen, what eventually will happen, and I will actually miss out on the experiences that I could have had.

This possibility is illustrated in a passage in the Talmud. Coming at the end of a series of stories in which Rabbi Johanan visited sick colleagues and healed them, we read about his encounter with his student Rabbi Elazar:

R. Eleazar fell ill and R. Johanan went in to visit him. He noticed that he was lying in a dark room, and he bared his arm and light radiated from it. Rabbi Johanan was said to be so beautiful that his skin glowed Thereupon he noticed that R. Eleazar was weeping, and he said to him: Why do you weep? Is it because you did not study enough Torah? Are you sad because you regret your past? Surely we learnt: The one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, provided that the heart is directed to heaven. Is it perhaps lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables. Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children? Are you sad because you resent your present – either your lack of material wealth or your lack of children? This is the bone of my tenth son! — Eliezer replied to him: I am weeping on account of this beauty that is going to rot in the earth. I am sad because of what I will lose in the future. He said to him: On that account you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept.

This passage is usually read as a guide as to how to engage with one another in grief. We shouldn’t assume we know why another person is in pain, and we shouldn’t try to convince them that they should not be, or that it could be worse. It can also be read as an example of two people being overwhelmed by the beauty of a moment, and aware that it will inevitably pass.

But look at how Johanan and Eliezer respond to the inevitability of loss. They don’t enjoy their beauty and vitality while it is with them, they don’t create experiences and memories that can sustain them when it is gone. They sit in a dark room, and they cry. True, they are deeply engaged with reality and with the steady flow of time. But how does that engagement help them? They are sad now when they contemplate loss, and they will be sad when they actually experience it.

Even if we can experience the inevitability of loss and the passage of time as a way to motivate ourselves, rather than something that paralyzes us with grief, it is still not a healthy way to live. If every time that I visit with a friend, I do it because I might not get another chance, that will color the experience. It will add a layer of stress and anxiety, a layer of urgency to the entire encounter. Living like this would not only put an incredible amount of pressure on me, it would also place that pressure on the people I am with.

I would like to propose an alternate way to find meaning. Rather than focusing on the fact that at some point in our lives, everything activity will be done for the last time. A last day at school, a last day at work. A last bike ride, a last soccer game, a last round of golf, a last tennis match. A last conversation with a family member, a last meal, a last breath. All of these things will happen. They are inevitable, and focusing on them will not change a single thing.

Instead, we can focus on them as firsts. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg describes this as one of the primary challenges that teachers of spirituality set forth: the ability to live every little experience as though it were an absolute novelty. What was it like the first time that you read a favorite book, or saw the ocean, or held a new baby?

I remember the first time that I saw the Rocky Mountains, they seemed like an impossibility. Beautiful, and huge, and so far away. It seemed more like a painted backdrop on a set than a real thing. But over the course of several days, they faded in my awareness, until they were another ignored part of the scenery. Until I really looked at them again, and felt the awe come rushing back.

We can only achieve this is we focus our full attention on what we are doing. If we are willing to let everything else slip away, and exist only in that moment, like we did the first time it happened. This isn’t easy to do, it requires attention and practice. But the more frequently we are able to achieve this, then the more frequently we will be able to achieve it. Each time we experience the wonder of a moment, we become a little more adept at finding meaning in even the most mundane parts of our lives. We develop the skill to go back to that place, and it becomes habitual to try.

If we can do that, if we can start to find meaning in the everyday parts of our lives, if we can values our relationships and our abilities before we are about to lose them, then we can start to understand the end of Unetaneh Tokef. The prayer ends with the words:

ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רֹע הגזרה

But T’shuvah, T’fillah, and Tz’dakah transform the harshness of our destiny.

Our actions today may not change what is waiting for us tomorrow or next week or six months from now – we will never know. But if we do t’shuvah – return to the person that we want to be, if we do t’fillah, search for insight into ourselves and our place in the world, and if we do tz’dakah – act with righteousness and justice, then we can be sure that we will have lived lives of meaning and significance.

Focusing only on the importance of the last of something is easy. At summer camp and on Israel trips, the last night was always important, I always tried to stay awake for as long as I could, to wring out every last drop of meaning and memory. I wasn’t alone, my friends always stayed up with me – we feel events and relationships most deeply when we know that they won’t be with us tomorrow.

But that relationship, that experience was available to me the day before the last one, and the day before that, and the day before that. Those moments before the last one are just as important. And there are so many more of them. Imagine the meaning you could find if instead of viewing each experience as the possible “last” you viewed it as a possible “first.”