December 4, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Yom Kippur, 2021.
A forest ranger in Washington State told a story of the first two white settlers to get across the country to see Mount Rainier. They were stunned by their view of the mountain. They responded how with amazement. Then they decided: “Let’s climb it and show we’re stronger than the mountain.” They went to an Indigenous tribe leader and said, “Give us a guide to lead us up to the top of the mountain.” The tribe leader responded, “I’m sorry. We can’t do that. That is a holy mountain. We believe the gods live up on top at a lake of fire. We do not intrude on them by climbing to where they dwell. The settlers responded, “You don’t understand. We’re offering you a lot of money to lead us to the mountaintop. The tribe leader said, “No, you don’t understand. There are some things that are not for sale. The home of the gods is one of them.” But the two settlers insisted and finally a guide was assigned to lead them. But the guide led them astray, down into valleys and up hills, trying to tire them out so they would give up. But they were persistent. So he led them partway up Mount Rainier. Then he said, “My faith and culture forbids me to go any farther. You are now on your own.” He thought he would never see them again, but these guys were very determined. They got to the top of the mountain, planted a flag, took pictures of each other at the peak, and came down again.
I want you to understand that the forest ranger told this story to make a point about the determination and courage of the two mountain climbers. But in my story, I buried the lede. The person to whom the forest ranger told this tale was author and Rabbi Harold Kushner, who took a very different message from the story. He felt very sad that “we human beings have gotten so good…at putting out sacred fires. We have minimized the godly realm, intruded on holy space and claimed it for our own. But for the prize of seeing ourselves as a people always on the verge of conquering our next territory, we have also ended up with nothing that transcends our existence and strikes us with healthy fears, reverence or trepidation.” (Adapted from “The Human Soul’s Quest for God, 10/11/1994, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/harold-s-kushner/the-human-souls-quest-for-god)
I’ve got to be honest. I get confused about fear and particularly fear of God. When Rabbi Kushner speaks of “healthy fear” or “reverence,” I believe he’s referring to what Judaism calls yirah, the feeling of being puny next to a commanding mountain. You can see how yirah was present in the conduct of the tribe leaders in the Mt. Rainier story, for they possessed a healthy sense of trepidation about where to travel or not. But they also seemed to hold a degree of what Judaism calls pachad, a fear of what could happen on the mountaintop if humanity got in God’s way. During the first 9 of the 10 days of repentance, we focus on yirah, a healthy fear or awe or reverence. But tonight we turn to pachad, fear that what we’ve done and may yet do, may portend consequences between us and God. Tonight on Yom Kippur, we concentrate on pachad, and it puts a chill into our bones. Pachad is absolute dread. There’s no talking pachad into loosening its grip. There’s no telling it anything. There’s no guide to show you the way up the mountain where pachad dwells, nor is there a rescue team to save you if you get lost.
Clearly the Israelites endured pachad in the Torah. How could they not as they encountered oppression, violence, hunger and conflict? If I’d have lived among the Israelites in the Bible, I honestly don’t know if I’d have survived to get out of Egypt. I’d have been more afraid of physically taking a beating from our oppressors, and would never have survived to find out what it was like to be at Mount Sinai choosing whether to be afraid of or in awe of the invisible God who led me there to await instructions. I realized this a few years ago when I made my grandmother retell me the story of what it was like for her to escape Poland and leave behind a small village where she’d lose all but one living relative to Hitler. My goodness, the pachad my grandma Esther must have felt so early in her life, arriving in America as a teenager. When I think of her survival and what she went through and how she lived to the age of 101, I don’t feel confident I’d have her ability to not let the pachad in her heart get the better of her.
Another tenacious survivor from Poland in that era who has set an example for me in terms of keeping faith and hope, was the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He went on to become, perhaps, the most respected rabbi in 20th century America. Yet Rabbi Heschel explained that for him, it was this evening of Yom Kippur that struck his heart with “great fear and trembling, great pachad, great awareness that [he was] about to be confronted. There was no fear of punishment, not even a fear of death, but the expectation of standing in the presence of God.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Abraham Joshua Heschel, essays edited by Susannah Heschel, NY: Farrar Strauss and Giroux Publishers, 1997). Notice Rabbi Heschel’s use of the term pachad. Our Cantor sang of Pachad just moments ago. He pleaded Uv’chen ten Pachedecha Adonai Elohenu al kol Ma’asecha. Those words beckon God to bring pachad closer. Cantor Lapin was essentially crying out to God: “Go ahead. Let us tremble in your presence. It’s Yom Kippur. We will live to survive this pachad. Bring it on.” But does the confidence exuded in that prayer seem true? This year in particular, it is difficult to imagine seeking out a greater confrontation from the almighty. Seeing the cumulative effects of a global climate crisis, the storms ravaging our nation, not to mention the casualties of a worldwide pandemic, the recent deaths of our U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and the brutality extolled in our modern culture, are we really confident in our capacity to handle more pachad? Can we human beings handle more things of which to be afraid?
As a rabbi, I have experience with people confessing their fears to me. People say they are afraid that one day, their minds will run dry or their bodies will bleed out. They are afraid of abject poverty and contending with a scarcity of food and sustenance. Since March of 2020, people have shared their fear of COVID-19. Others in our community carrying more generic fears into Yom Kippur, fears not specifically caused by modern events. Just think of the persons you know who are afraid of heights- either on the rooftops of tall buildings or at the peak height of enormous rollercoasters. Many people are afraid of loud noises…especially ones that occur at night, which means they are afraid of the dark. I know of many people who are afraid to fly. Are you one of them? If you think about it, every time we get onboard a flight, there should be a degree of yirah, healthy trepidation in our hearts. After all, we are placing our safety into the hands of a crew we’ve never met. They are joined by other strangers in whom we place trust, the ones working in air traffic control who guide our take-off and landing.
I’m not afraid of flying. But that wasn’t always true. The first time I flew without my parents, my brothers and I were headed to visit grandparents in Florida. They let kids board early. But that meant we were also on the plane to listen to the flight crew’s preparation. A buzzer went off. So did the ding of the flight crew’s phone bell. We then listened to the various sounds of baggage being loaded to the flight. I heard a sound like a thud, followed by a fainter sound. You know that all of these sounds are normal. But I didn’t. I was struck with fear and turned to my eldest brother Bruce and said: “what was that?” He looked me in the eye. He saw his moment and pounced. He leapt on top of me yelling- “It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb!” Today we laugh about it. Today we’d also have been banned from the airline. Today I have much more flight experience. But then, I absolutely believed I was not going to survive. Most of us are only a couple of turbulent moments onboard a flight away from that same bone-chilling fear.
In her book The Dance of the Dolphin, Rabbi Karyn Kedar acknowledges her personal fear of flying. She writes: “It was the last flight of the day, and the plane was filled with weary business people…I glanced at the person across the aisle from me… just quick enough to see he was a young man in his twenties… He was looking straight ahead… [Then] …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…Then I read to keep my mind distracted.”
Rabbi Kedar continues: “We were in our final approach into O’Hare 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. 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…Just 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 you were praying. I wanted you to know that you were not alone. I was praying too.” Still shaken, I whispered, “Thank you.” The two parted ways. But Rabbi Kedar explains, “I still feel his hand on my shoulder nearly every time I am scared.” (Story adapted from an essay by Rabbi Karyn Kedar in The Dance of the Dolphin : Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001)
The thing is: the pachad of turbulent moments does not go away because we ask it to. Yom Kippur is proof! Tonight we have the temerity to ask a dreadful pachad to come closer, because we know in our gut, we might not get a next Yom Kippur on which to atone. I wish I could tell you we will. I’d be lying. What I can say is: when your life hits turbulence, when you tremble like you’ve tempted the Gods on a distant mountain, we in your synagogue will be an energy committed to you. Unless you ask us to, we will not leave your side. You are not alone. Let me repeat: you are not alone. We recognize that you may have doubts in our nearness or that God comforts those shaking with fear. If that is you, just remember our human energy is right here to help you face the fear of not knowing how much longer you get to survive. Surely, if there is a God, it is not some cosmic air-traffic controller, destroying some, frightening the hell out of others, and keeping a third group safe. I just can’t bring myself to believe that. But neither do I deny, God can be present in both the pachad, the dread we feel when life is turbulent and the yirah, the reverence and hope emerging when we reach across the aisle to one another.
Isn’t that why so many people participate each year in Yom Kippur? Isn’t it on the bet that in our earnest seeking of atonement and forgiveness, we’ll know we didn’t operate alone. We are not alone. Even this year, secluded in our homes for a second pandemic Yom Kippur, we hope you’ll feel enveloped by a community that soothes you if you are despairing. In Psalm 27, we read: “Adonai Uri, V’Yishee. The Eternal is my light and my rescue. Of whom should I fear? The Eternal is my life’s stronghold. Of whom should I be feel despair?” Rabbi Harold Kushner comments that “on their face, these words [of the Psalms] sound confident and assured. But perhaps the speaker’s repeated insistence that he has nothing to fear actually means that he does feel fear, but has gotten to a place where his faith has counterbalanced that fear….[The Psalmist’s] faith comes from…God, but not a God who protects him from all trouble and danger but [One] who stands with him in a time of trouble and danger, so that he never has to feel he is facing his problems alone.” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, Rabbi Laureate, Temple Israel, Natick, MA, https://www.congkti.org/blog/rosh-hashanah-5780-day-1-faith-over-fear)
Surely, in the months ahead, we’ll encounter events that will harshly confront us. It would be foolish to deny that pachad makes us feel weak in the knees. But Jewish tradition teaches us to look for another force to counterbalance fears. That way whether we fear darkness, abuse or oppression, whether we fear the rooftops of tall buildings, the turbulence of rocky flights or the ice on wintery highways, our tradition has a message for us. It is this: you are not alone. You are not alone up against the isolation and the upset that this past year and a half sheltering from COVID-19 has wrought up within you. You are not alone.
Let’s take a moment and turn inward and meditate on that idea. Wherever you are seated participating in worship, I ask you to take a moment and sit up and just breathe. Take a big breath in. Hold it. Then let it out. Keep breathing. Keep listening.
In her poem Anew, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes of all the ways we might be afraid at this time. She writes: “It is difficult to sit with our fear and to be uncertain what choice we can make that will keep the people around us safe…Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do is seek out sweetness everywhere we may and work to fix what brokenness we find. The good news is we’re not in this alone. We help each other hope when light seems dim…We love each other fiercely; In the end there is no greater work that we can do. We who survive will help each other. (https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/new-years-poems.html)
That’s what a community stands for. We remind each other that: We are not alone. In the quiet of your mind, Not aloud, Repeat after me: I know [Pause], I’m not [Pause], Alone [Pause].
Again, silently, in your mind, repeat: I know [Pause], I’m not [Pause], Alone [Pause]
(Adapted from “I Know I’m Not Alone” (Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz), https://www.paulkipnes.com/guided-meditation-i-know-im-not-alone.
The words I just read were adapted from a guided meditation by my colleagues Rabbi Julia Weisz and Rabbi Paul Kipnes. Tonight I’d add just 2 more lines to their beautiful composition:
Psalm 27 specifically mentions armies and hateful enemies. I don’t think its composers meant those fears exclusively. They knew humanity would also be afraid of disastrous storms or plaguing diseases or losing our means of sustenance. They sought to soothe us in Psalm 27, saying that when we’re afraid: Adonai Uri v’Yishee. The Eternal One will be our light. That even when we are most terrified, even then, V’zot Ani Boteach. we can be confident.
Dear friends, this Yom Kippur, perhaps more than any year previous, your community is reaching across the aisle. We are reaching out to support you. Wherever you are hearing my words, hear this: this is not a silent, unfeeling cosmos. You are safe. You are loved. You are on this earth. If you get lost climbing a distant mountain, we’ll send out a rescue team. We will. And why? Because you… are not…alone.