Friday, November 2, 2012

The Power of Fear

Parshat VaYera
17 Heshvan, 5772
November 2nd, 2012

People who live in safety enjoy putting themselves in danger.

Well, maybe not in danger – more like next to danger. You know what I’m describing: boxing, surfing, skydiving, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba-diving, skiing; what links them all is exhilaration and the possibility of getting messed up in the process.

I won’t criticize too much – I’m one of these types, suburban born, seeking opportunities to leave safety behind.

There is a method behind this modern madness; sitting next to danger is a way of choosing healthy fear.  While we’re alive, fear cannot be banished. Instead what one can do is respond well in its face. And one can choose which kinds of fear dominate one’s life.

Fear is all around us. Unfortunately, most of it is stupid: the fear of parents who worry that their child may not be eternally exceptional (and blackmail teachers to make it so); the fear of young professionals who fret whether we’ll leave the right kind of mark; the fear that those from different social and national strata will somehow invade our lives for the worse. We are gripped by useless fear.

And what I can tell you is that, when in the clutch of dumb fear, getting hit in the face is a wonderfully clarifying experience; being tossed off a wave prioritizes life beautifully.

Within Torah communities, people talk about yirah – fear – quite positively. To have yirat shamyim (fear of heaven) is a virtue. Most moderns view the idea with distaste: what kind of God would want to be feared?

But I think we miss the point. To say someone has yirah means that she has chosen what to fear: not the boss, nor the opinion of neighbors, nor the kids’ academic future. Yirah is fear of two things: what account she will give to the Creator, and whether the Master of the World will bring life-threatening danger in her lifetime.

No one asks for a hurricane, but there is something set free in the soul when communities make sure that people have food, clothing, power, safety, and medical care: real things. God bless those who are afraid for their neighbors’ in Sandy’s aftermath.

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