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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

October 30, 2020

Parashat Lech L’cha: A Little Fear Can Be A Good Thing

 

In Jewish tradition, we begin holidays the night prior, the evening before. Now, we have a wonderful calendar full of Jewish holidays, but we happen to be right in the middle of the month of Cheshvan - the month immediately following Tishrei, which contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah - full of holidays! Now we’re in Cheshvan, and for our celebrations, we turn to our secular calendar, which certainly impacts our lives as American Jews. So tonight is, you might say, Erev Halloween. 

Halloween - usually a day marked by candy, costumes, parades, and family fun. Halloween - a night that is a little bit spooky and scary, too. It’s only natural, of course. The days are growing shorter, especially after this weekend, and we are heading into the darker, colder time of year. 

In any other year, in any other time, while we may long for the final days of warm weather and feel like spring is so, so many months away, there’s also a calm and a comfort heading into Halloween and this quieter time of year. We appreciate the rhythm of our four true seasons here, and those who enjoy winter activities look forward to a day like today - the very first - early! - snow of the season.

As with every other day, every other milestone, celebration, birthday, holiday - the end of October in 2020 feels different. Halloween is a night of fun, but also fear, and that is one consistent emotion I have heard expressed in our conversations and in the tenor of our voices in recent weeks. Fear. We are afraid of the end of warm weather and the possibility of gathering safely outdoors. We are afraid of the return of the pandemic at a greater or even worse scale than we have seen yet in its terrible progression. We are afraid for our jobs, our children, our older parents or friends. We are afraid for our country. Many of us are afraid of what awaits us next week on Election Day, whatever the result. And we are afraid of being lonely. We are afraid that this winter we will be very alone. Halloween - a very scary night of the year, now more than ever.

The end of daylight savings time and the shortening days both sparks and represents this fear we feel. This is not a new experience for humanity. As we read in this week’s Torah portion,

“Then, as the sun was setting, [our patriarch] Abram fell into a deep sleep, and lo! A powerful dark dread was falling upon him!” (Gen. 15:12)

You can picture the scene. Night is falling. The sun is setting. Abraham, here still known as Abram, is falling asleep, but that darkness, that dread, is falling upon him as well. He is afraid of the evening, afraid of the darkness, and afraid of the unknown. 

This week’s Torah portion is Lech L’cha, famously known as the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey toward the promised land and into covenant with God. Theirs is both a physical and a spiritual journey of transformation and discovery.

The Torah, as my Torah study regulars know, does not mince words - often our narrative is very sparse and does not include much about what our ancestors were thinking and feeling. In the beginning of our parasha, when God utters those famous words, Lech L’cha - Go Forth! to the founders of our people - we don’t hear a response from Abraham or Sarah - they just get going. But we can certainly imagine their internal narrative - a mix of fear and excitement. A sense of calling, of going toward the unknown. It’s not surprising that later on in their journey, that we get a sense of Abraham’s trepidation. “Have no fear, Abram; I am giving you an abundant reward as a gift,” (Gen 15:1) God reminds our ancestor periodically.

In so many of our psalms, songs, and prayers, we are told not to fear. Do not be afraid. In psalm 23, best known for its use in funeral and memorial services, we call out to God, “Lo ira ra, ki Ata imadi”  - I will not fear evil, for You are with me. 

So God - our faith - our community - can be our source of comfort in the face of fear. Yet, there’s a contradiction, a contrast, going on here, both in how we experience fear in the Bible, and how we experience fear today.

 

Sometimes, a little fear is a good thing. Sometimes, it’s ok to be scared by a horror film, or a very realistic Halloween costume, or even an October snow shower. And it is ok to be afraid of the global pandemic - because that fear is keeping us - and our community - safe. Let me make a distinction. There is a difference between a fear so great it takes over our lives. If you are experiencing this kind of fear about the pandemic, about the upcoming winter, about the state of our country and our world - I hope and pray that you will reach out to me or someone else you trust. We should not suffer in fear alone. But a healthy dose of fear and reverence - known in the Bible as yirat shamayim, fear of the Heavens, can ground us here on earth. Since our ancestor Abraham, we have experienced a fear of the unknown. That healthy fear keeps us safe and alive, even on unexpected journeys and untraveled paths. That age old fear of the dark brings us together in community to kindle the lights of Shabbat, and, at the darkest time of the year, our Chanukah lights. That fear keeps us home right now on holidays and weekends, even if we would rather be with family and friends, or in our Temple building. That healthy dose of fear - of reverence for the fact that there are forces beyond our control and our human wish to bend the world to our will - that fear is keeping us safe. On Erev Halloween, on the last Friday before daylight savings time concludes, on the last Shabbat before the election, may our fears not be so great that they keep us from finding joy in moments of community and beauty. The growing darkness and the snow today represent the onset of winter, and the snow is also beautiful. It can be both. May we connect with that healthy dose of fear that keeps us alert, attentive, appropriately distant, and safe. May we see it, in fact, as a blessing. May we calm our greater fears by knowing that God and our Jewish community are with us, as always. Lech l’cha - we continue on our journey, to a place we do not know. Lo ira ra, Ki Ata imadi - We will not fear evil, because God is with us, and we are with each other. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Tue, January 19 2021 6 Shevat 5781