Last week, as you know, I was unable to speak because of my cold. Thank Gd I’m feeling better—although not all better. Today’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is really just a continuation of the experience of the Jewish people at Sinai begun in last week’s parsha, Yitro. Since its message is very much part of this week’s message I will share with you now what I had intended to share last week.
Let me ask you a personal question: What are you afraid of? Illness, death, taxes? How about walking into a school—now that we’ve seen the shootings in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and last week at the Price Middle School in Atlanta? Do you fear terrorist attacks on American soil? How about a nuclear terrorist attack funded by Iran? After 9/11 we all had such fears. Have we become too complacent?
I grew up at a time when most of America was afraid of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union—the Red Menace. I remember as a child in elementary school that every once in a while we would have an air-raid drill. How many of you remember that? A siren would go off and we immediately were directed to crouch under our desks. As I think back now I realize how ridiculous that was. If an atomic bomb hit, was I any safer under that desk?
What are we really afraid of? Some of us have been hurt in relationships, so much so, that we’re fearful of the pain of disappointment and so we forego the possibilities of love and joy in having relationships. We choose to play it safe and distance ourselves from real emotional involvements.
Right from the start you can get hurt. The 1st call for a date you risk rejection. And the more dates the greater the risk of getting hurt. It’s the risk that is behind the story of the young man who wanted to insure himself against rejection so he 1st asked the girl, “If I were to kiss you, would you call for help?” And she replied, “Why? Would you need help?”
You make yourself vulnerable when you tell someone, “I love you. I want to marry you and live with you for the rest of my life.” That’s quite a gamble! And all too many have chosen not to take the gamble. But, the fact of the matter is, if you are afraid to risk your heart and make a commitment, you will always find reasons to be afraid and reasons not to make a commitment. If you think that this is not the right time, it may always be—not the right time.
From time to time people come to see me asking for advice because they have a fear of taking a risk—a fear of being hurt, a lack of trust in themselves or in others. And invariably, when I’m confronted with these questions I tell them 3 things:
1st, I tell them the words of Mark Twain who said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. But most of them never happened.”
2nd, I tell them that it has been my experience in life that most of the things we regret are not the things we do, but the things we didn’t do. As Rabbi Avi Weiss writes in his book, Jewish Activism, “We must not let what we cannot do control what we can do!”
3rd and last, I tell them about porcupines. In terms of taking risks with others, Bruno Bettelheim, the psychiatrist, said something that has always fascinated me. He said that scientists often try to understand human nature by studying guinea pigs or rats or mice. Bettelheim says that’s a big mistake. He says that if you really want to understand human nature you should study porcupines. Why? Because porcupines live out in the forest where it’s cold in the winter, and so they huddle together to get warm. But what happens when they huddle together? They hurt each other with their quills. So they recoil. What happens when they recoil? They get cold from the weather. And so they alternate back and forth between being too far apart and the pain that brings, and being too close and the paint that brings! And that’s the way human beings are too.
Incidentally, how does a porcupine make love? It may sound like a silly question but it’s not. How does a porcupine make love? Answer: VERY CAREFULLY!!...especially if he has been hurt the 1st time.
And so it is with us. At times friends can break your heart and it is hard to love and trust and reach out again after you’ve been hurt. Members of your family to whom you give your heart can disappoint you, can change on you, can divorce you or can die on you. And whenever that happens, you are tempted to recoil and withdraw into yourself. But if you do that for too long, you freeze up. We all make decisions in life that we regret. Unable to turn back the clock, we lose confidence in ourselves and turn inward and sullen.
If we recognize the inevitability of change coming into our lives…if we recognize how important it is to have family and friends to be there with us, to help and sustain us…if we have enough confidence in ourselves and recognize that no one is perfect—no one gets it right all the time—perhaps we will come to understand that it’s worth the risk of reaching out to others to trust once again. After all, if porcupines can do it, then so can we! The alternative is to live in a cold, cruel and lonely world.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, in one of his magnificent discourses I heard as a student at Yeshiva University, told the story of a Baal Teshuva, a psychiatrist who had returned to Judaism. He said to him, “Rebbe, I now can accept almost everything in Jewish life. Becoming more observant has really made a difference to me and my family. But there is this one prayer in the High Holy Days davening that I can’t accept. We say, Uvcheyn teyn pachd’cha Hashem Elokeynu al kol maasecha, ‘Oh Gd, allow Your fear to engulf all of Your creation.’ I am a psychiatrist, and I know that the root cause of all evil is fear.”
Rabbi Soleveitchik with his pointing finger twisting in his unique way responded, “I’m not a psychiatrist nor the son of a psychiatrist, but I know one thing, everyone fears: fear of sickness, of aging, fear of dying, the fear of rejection, of loneliness, loss of position, loss of money, loss of someone close. [Now we can add, fear of terrorism—whether it’s a shooting, a bomb, biological or nuclear terror.] Who doesn’t fear? But there is one fear,” said Soleveitchik, “that has the power to remove all of the lesser fears that lurk on the horizon that threaten to wreak havoc in our lives, and that’s the fear of Gd.”
In last week’s parsha, the Jewish people stood at Mt. Sinai listening to Gd communicating directly with each one individually. Gd promised them that they will become, “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” The people then responded as one, “All that Hashem tells us we will do.” They then go through 3 days of preparation to receive the word of Gd and His commandments. When the great day arrives and when Hashem begins to speak, Mt. Sinai becomes aglow with thunder and lightning—full of smoke with the sound of the shofar blasting. It must have been the most awesome amazing moment—filled with such wonder and, yes, fear. As the Torah then tells us, “the people saw and trembled and stood from afar”—i.e. they backed away. Moses tried to reassure them by telling them not to fear and that Gd had done this “to elevate you…so that the fear of Gd shall be on your faces.”
You see, when the Torah (Deut. 6:13) later commands us to fear Gd its intention is not to fill us with anxiety and dread, but to give us a mechanism to remove our lesser fears. The Jewish people at Sinai finally understood that they no longer had to fear the Egyptians or anyone else because Gd was with them. Perhaps it would be better understood if we translated the word yira, not so much as “fear,” but as “awe.” Strange as it is to say, Gd’s commandment to fear Him is an expression of His love—a precious gift, a gift that calls upon us to look upon all the challenges that confront us, not with fear, but as opportunities for growth. If we live our lives in awe of Gd, then we always know He is with us, and we can say as it says at the end of the Adon Olam prayer, Hashem li v’lo ira, “Gd is with me so I will not fear!”
So let’s have the courage to take risks. Let’s get up from crouching behind our desks and instead of taking tranquilizers, let’s get up and get to it! Take your flu shots. Start making plans for a trip, or to get married, or have children, or start dating again, or make peace with someone you love. Don’t be afraid. Gd is always with you and wants only good for you.
The Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman taught: Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar m’od’ v’ha-ikar lo l’facheyd klal, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; but the main thing is to never be afraid.” This world is a bridge to the next world. It’s narrow and filled with pitfalls—each of which is an opportunity to grow stronger and more humane as we cross to the other side. The main thing is to put your fear, your awe in Gd and in doing so never be afraid of whatever life throws at us. So fear Gd and stop worrying so much about everything else. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis