You Are Not Alone – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk Teaching on Shabbat at Fairmount Temple – July 19, 2013

This blog post is excerpted from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk’s remarks on Shabbat Vaetchanan, Friday, July 19, 2013 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to comment, post and share this post widely, as we utilize the “If Not Now, When?” interactive blog as an opportunity to raise important topics for community-wide discussion.

The widely-regarded leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, has demonstrated throughout his life that a person facing their greatest fears- can illumine a darkened path for others. Throughout his tenure in leadership, he has pointed us toward others whose courage inspired him and on whose insights he relied during his time in a Robben Island prison cell under apartheid. In addition, he has spoken of the challenges of emerging from that cell to the lead his nation’s difficult transformation from the degradation of apartheid to the glory of human equality. As we pray here tonight in Cleveland, Mandela’s condition in South Africa, remains intensely fragile- and the world remains attuned to news of his well-being.

But I think it to be both a prayerful and helpful act tonight to be reminded of Mandela’s precise words on this matter of facing our fears and thus impacting others around us. In his book Long Walk to Freedom, he said that facing one’s fears was  “let our own light shine” and in so doing Mandela said: “we unconsciously give other people [around us] permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I’ve been thinking about Mandela’s powerful words of witness a great deal in recent weeks. Yes, I’ve been meditating quite a bit over these recent days in our country, closing my eyes and trying to center my thoughts, beginning with the master story of our Jewish people in the exodus from Egypt and moving my attention to the fears we try to vanquish to this day.

When I’ve opened my eyes from meditation to look around me, I’ve watched along with many of you the troubling events touching our nation, the anguish many have felt invested in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial in Florida, the news just yesterday of the plunging of my home community in the city of Detroit into one of the largest bankruptcies in American history, and the seemingly intractable array of political fist-fights that have now come to fruition blocking a progress in our national and state legislatures.

In Columbus, this week in which we remember a year since the gun violence massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, some knucklehead has determined that this is the week to try to move forward on a bill called H.B. 203 which would change Ohio’s law to make it easier to get a concealed carry permit here, that would remove minimum training requirements and clear the current obstacles for people charged with possession of narcotics or against whom there is a restraining order to get concealed carry licenses.

I don’t think you have to know me very well to see and understand that I am troubled by what I see and hear. My pulse is raised. My brow is furrowed. I am frightened by the tumult around me.

In junior high school, I remember them teaching us about President Roosevelt’s statement that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. But in Hebrew school, I got the sense that FDR was relying on the example set in our Torah, in the Bible, of an Israelite tribe freed by God’s hand but unwilling to let go of with its own hands of its grip on fear as its organizing principle. In other words, we like our ancient forebears,  have been more comfortable being “subject to” the other- rather than “empowered by” the presence of others who can powerfully affect us to feel fear or calm on a day-to-day basis.

In the Torah the other to the Israelites was the Egyptian taskmaster. But today the “other” whom we fear is much more amorphous. We hold fear of the strangers who stand behind us in the grocery aisle or in the school pick-up lane. We are afraid of the people who live right around the corner. And there is no escaping the fear people humanly experience when traveling through security in our nation’s airports, or while finding our way back to our cars after a ball-game, or contemplating as our kids get on their bikes and ride home from school. For isn’t school, in fact, the very first place in our society that teaches us to fear the other?

This all leads me to a very basic question at the core of my d’var Torah tonight… which is this: what are you afraid of? What are the most common fears any of us hold? I’ve asked around this week and learned that among these fears:

–         We are afraid of heights… afraid to stand on the rooftops of our tallest buildings, and take a risk of breathing in the air at such an altitude.

–         We are afraid of loud noises…especially loud ones that occur in the dark of night, which means that-

–         We are afraid of the dark. Of being shocked by what might happen in that place of vulnerability.

As long of a list of fears as we create, these are just a few of the wide sampling of triggers for our fear, things that make us instinctually believe we are in harm’s way. As a rabbi, when I study at the sources of our tradition, I see a good number of the things that we remain afraid of- in the ancient list of plagues that the composers of Torah imagined as afflictions upon Egypt in order to secure the Israelites freedom. They in Egypt and we in modern day America experience a fear of blood, a fear of darkness, fear of pestilence, of disease, of wild animals, and of course, topping the list, a fear that something might happen to our children.

How about a fear of flying? Are you afraid when you or a loved one get on an airplane? Part of that fear goes back to our fear of heights? But another part of our fear of flying is the fear of being truly vulnerable to a stranger- placing your well-being and your safety in a stranger’s hands, the pilot who controls the airplane and the strangers in the air traffic control center who mark out pathways for safe-take off, routing and landing?

Be honest. Aren’t you at least a little bit afraid when you get on board an airplane?

The first time I flew without my parents it was in the company of my two older brothers, who let’s just say, were not comforting. We were going down to visit my grandparents in Florida, and they let us board early as kids, long enough to get settled, but also long enough to listen to the flight crew’s preparation of both the inner and outer parts of the plane. A buzzer went off, and so did the ding of the flight crew’s phone bell, and we listened early in the boarding process to the various sounds of the baggage belt being set up to carry our suitcases aboard. When I heard a sound like a thud, followed by a slightly fainter sound of another thud… I turned to my oldest brother and said: what was that? He looked at me, saw his moment and pounced. He leapt on top of me yelling- “It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb!”

I read not long back the testimony of my colleague Rabbi Karyn Kedar about her own fear of flying. She shared this as a short story in her book Dance of the Dolphins, an exquisite memoir of various spiritually enriching experiences she has had. Rabbi Kedar describes her fear each time she boards an airplane… fear that there is something going to go wrong. But she also admits that as a rabbi she doesn’t love being exposed to those around her as a person who is running short on faith in a modern-day airplane. She says:

“There’s an unwritten code while flying during the business traveler’s rush: no eye contact. Eye contact could only lead to conversation, and conversation inevitably leads to the question I most dread in these circumstances: “So, what do you do?” An honest answer to that question leads to the unwanted conversation that only has a few texts: “Oh, really, I never knew women could be rabbis. Or “I haven’t been at a temple since my Bar Mitzvah, or “You wouldn’t believe what a rabbi I knew once said to me” or “How is it that you do not believe in our savior?”…”

“…So I follow the code, eyes slightly down or blankly straight ahead. Once I was on my way home from a book signing, and I settled into my seat trying to look relaxed. It was the last flight of the day, and the plane was filled with weary business people. Trying not to break the code, I glanced at the person across the aisle from me… just quickly enough to see he was a young man in his twenties, probably in sales. He was looking straight ahead- he knew the rules.”

“I closed my eyes during take-off and said my customary prayer, “God may it be your will that we reach our destination in peace.” I repeated the phrase “May it be your will” over and over like a mantra until we reached altitude. Then I read to keep my mind distracted. We were in our final approach into O’hare Airport when we suddenly hit unbelievable turbulence. The plane tilted side to side and up and down with such intensity that I was sure the pilot’s knuckles were as white as my face. I glanced outside to see how close we were to the ground and wondered how many miles we could plummet and still survive. I closed my eyes and prayed in pulsating whispers for courage, for courage, for life and for courage, for hope that eternity exists and for courage, for my children and for their courage.”

“Then I felt the weight of a large hand on my shoulder. Although I didn’t open my eyes, I knew it was the hand of the young man across the aisle. The words of my prayer merged with the warmth of his touch. For what seemed like a lifetime we were still, my eyes turned toward God, his hand securely on my shoulder. Then we landed, safely.”

“I opened my eyes and look into his. We smiled. He said: “I saw that you were praying, and I wanted you to know that you were not alone. I was praying too.” Still shaken, I whispered, “Thank you.” Then as we left the plane, he said to me, “So what do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“What brought you [on this flight?]…” He asked. “I was at a book signing.”

“What’s the name of your book?” “God Whispers,” I answered.

“Busted!” as my ten year old daughter would say. “God Whispers- boy was I praying with the right person,” he said. [And that was the last thing he said.]… We walked briskly, not speaking, no eye contact. I went to the right for ground transportation and he went to the left toward baggage claim. But I still feel his hand on my shoulder nearly every time I am scared.”

I read that story aloud this morning to a person I know who has been afraid lately- afraid enough to panic, and strong enough to say- I need help to soothe my fears.

My friend said of Rabbi Kedar’s story that “no one can take away your turbulence. There isn’t just one thing that one person does that fixes it. What helps when you are afraid is not that someone can stop what’s making you afraid. It’s just knowing that there is an energy that is committing to you, and letting you know- in this moment, you are not alone.”

In this moment, you are not alone. I like that message on this Shabbat at this difficult moment and time in our nation’s history. Tonight, on this Shabbat we need not feel alone. And just like opening our eyes to a turbulent and violent and chaotic society around us can make us afraid for our lives… so are we also reminded by Rabbi Kedar’s example to simply accept the gift of another being’s energy committed to ours. Her example is acceptance… acceptance of a hand she’d never have asked for to steady her own racing heart and mind… a hand which another being offered freely- a hand of a person whom she’ll probably never see again but one that deepens her resolve to this day to pray with sincerity.

Rabbi Kedar says that “the real prayer she experienced that day rested not in her thoughts nor in his but “in the space between” them. “Prayer took the form of touch, of a sensation of a great hand reaching across a vast isolated space, and making contact.”

Something greater than us, an energy reaching across a vast isolated space and making contact – isn’t that what we are here to feel tonight? Or perhaps we are here to be sure that some other place or person feels enveloped by the message of this congregation. As we take steps to figure out who needs our care, as we travel from this Shabbat unto the next, surely there will be moments of profound fear. But as real and as true and as important as any fears we hold of darkness or oppression or heights or of flying or of driving, is  the message my friend is hoping to feel.

It is a simple message: In this moment, and I pray in the next: you are not alone.