Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Those who know it, please sing with me the Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman’s song that’s written on the back cover of the synagogue Shabbat Bulletin:

          Kol Ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, 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.”

Do you live with fear? For thousands of years the Jews lived in fear—from all the expulsions, pogroms, the Inquisition, the Holocaust. In or personal lives, it’s the fear of sickness, of aging, fear of dying, the fear of rejection, of loneliness, loss of position, loss of money or the loss of someone close. Who doesn’t fear?

Since the beginning of this Jewish month of Elul—the month before Rosh Hashanah—at every morning and evening service, we’ve read Psalm 27, l’David Hashem Ori (Gd is my light), in which King David discusses his fears. It’s a moving psalm that begins:

          Gd is my light and my help; whom need I fear?

          Gd is the strength of my life; why should I be afraid?

          When evil doers press around me...I have no fear.

3 times in the 1st 3 verses, David tells us he’s not afraid. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that when someone keeps telling you, “I’m not afraid, I’m really not afraid, no I’m not afraid,” he’s really saying that he IS very much afraid, and he’s working very hard at coping with it.

When your child tells you, “You know, I’m not afraid of dogs anymore,” what he really means is that he’s still afraid of them, but he’s learning to control his fears. And so it is with David. He says he’s not afraid, but what he apparently means is that there are things that scare him. He’s just grateful that he’s able to cope with them.

One of the reasons fairy tales continue to fascinate us is that we never quite get over the things that used to frighten us as children. They retain a bit of their capacity to scare us. In the real world too, the things that scare us are related to the things that used to scare us as children.

Sometimes even the littlest things scare us. As someone once said to his friend who was afraid of spiders:

          “Don’t worry; the spider is smaller than you.”

          He replied, “Yea, but so is a hand grenade!”

What scares King David? He’s afraid of the dark—not just the nighttime—he’s afraid of the dark side of human nature, the dark part of the world—people’s capacity for hatred, for cruelty. He finds it in others, and he sees it in himself, and that terrifies him. He wonders what’s going to happen to the world.

One of the constant fears of children and their elders is being picked on, being victimized by greater numbers or greater strength. David speaks of “evildoers pressing near to destroy me,” or “armies arrayed against me,” of false witnesses telling malicious lies about him. He’s afraid that all the forces of wickedness will gang up on him and victimize him and he doesn’t know whether he’s strong enough to stand up to them.

He’s afraid of being left alone: Ki avi v’imi azavuni (If my father and mother should leave me). He’s afraid of being abandoned and discovering that the people he cares about don’t care that much about him—that in fact nobody really cares about him. These are human, universal fears, and they’re enough to frighten anyone.

Although these things scare him he declares that he’s not afraid. Why? Because he believes in Gd, and that makes all the difference. Gd is his light and his help, the strength of his life. Gd is the light that comes to dispel the darkness.

Remember how you felt as a child in a dark room. The darkness seemed so total, so strong, overtaking everything, but even a little bit of light made it disappear quickly. And after you realized how easily the darkness could be dispelled—that you could turn the light and darkness on and off again—darkness was not quite so frightening.

When we try to turn on the light of Gd against the world’s darkness, it doesn’t make the world’s darkness go away forever. But we do learn, in time, that the darkness is not as overwhelming or as invincible as it may have seemed.

I think there’s an answer for one who asks: “If there IS a Gd, why is there so much suffering and cruelty?” It’s a complicated answer, involving our freedom to choose, our sensitivity to right and wrong, the fact that things pain us don’t pain others. But I ask one who tries to live without Gd if he has an answer to this question: “If there is no Gd, if there is no force making for goodness and decency in the world, why is there as much goodness in the world as there is? Where does it come from? Where do people get the inspiration, the impulse to help, to heal, to protest injustice?”

When the world’s darkness seems to be closing in, one deed of kindness, one instance of a person going out of his way to help another is enough to pierce the darkness and reassure us that we need not be quite as afraid. The amazing thing about us is that just as one little light can dispel a whole roomful of darkness, so does a small dose of kindness restore our faith and courage. If one person out of a 1,000—one out of 10,000—goes out of his way to show he/she cares about us, that may be enough to maintain our faith in human nature.

That’s why when we make a Mishebeyrach prayer for someone who is ill, we say: Baavur shenadav litzdaka b’ad r’fuato (We pledge ourselves to an act of tzedaka for the healing of the ill person). It doesn’t mean just to give money. Tzedaka means any act of kindness and self-sacrifice that helps others. It can be something as simple as visiting the sick, paying a condolence call, helping to make a minyan. It’s an act of tzedaka because you know what it feels like to be in trouble, to be sick. You remember when your world was dark and someone went out of his way to brighten it.

So we pledge ourselves to do an act of tzedaka to brighten the world a little for someone for whom it has grown dark; to do something which will make someone believe that there is light in Gd’s world and that he/she needn’t be afraid.

When David writes of his fear of being alone Gd responds: “You will not be alone. You may be lonely but you will not be alone. When you feel the stirring of courage within you at a depth you never knew, you will know that I am there with you. When you strike a spark in another’s heart, when you teach someone to discover their capacity for goodness and you see how grateful he/she is, you’ll know that I, Gd, am at work in the world to make you less alone.

David is afraid of being alone in another way as well: Ki avi v’imi azavuni (If my father and mother should leave me), vaHashaem yaasfeyni (but Gd will take me in). He knows that one of these days his parents will leave him. David doesn’t say that when his parents die that their lives will be over and they won’t see their friends or family anymore. He writes from the mourner’s point of view: “They will leave me and I will be alone.”

          Gd answers: “No, you will not be alone. I will see to that. You’ll be surrounded by people during shiva, you’ll join with others at the minyan. You’ll not be alone.”

Mourners sometimes have feelings of survivor-guilt saying: “I’m being punished; this is happening to me because I deserve it, and now everyone will know what a bad person I am and they will shun me because Gd has seen fit to punish me.” But you’ll see how wrong you are. People will stand by you, to console and strengthen you. That will be Gd at work in them, moving them to compassion. And so David writes: Luley he-emanti b’tuv Hashem b’eretz chayim (I shall yet see Gd’s goodness among the living).

Finally, David says: Achat shaalti mey-yet Hashem (I ask only one thing of Gd). He doesn’t ask Gd to change the world. He doesn’t ask Gd to make this a world where people don’t die or a world where people are incapable of evil. He has faith that Gd knows what He’s doing in His management of the world. He just wants to be able to cope. You see, for the Jew the glass is always half-full for it is Gd who has poured it.

The one thing David asks for is lachazot b’noam Hashem ul’vakeyr b’heychalo, to be sure of the goodness of Gd and to sense His presence. David is telling us that we have within each of us a voice of Gd, a voice that resonates within our souls, a voice that is part of our true self. We can animate it, we can make it easier to hear simply by doing the things that Jews do, by being what we are supposed to be. The voice can come at a quiet moment, or even while driving your car. Suddenly, you feel that you are a part of something so much greater than yourself.

David ends Psalm 27: Kavey el Hashem, chazak v’ameytz libecha, v’kavey el Hashem (Have hope in Gd, be strong in your heart and hope in Gd).     

My friends, we will be judged for the coming year in only 2 weeks on Rosh Hashanah. How dare we come before Gd once again and pray for another year of life—a year of health and prosperity, a year of happiness and peace? We who last year promised to do so much more for Gd, for ourselves, for our families, and for our community, and did little more than the year before? Are we not afraid of Gd’s response?

Yes, and that’s the point. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z”l, taught: “There is one fear that has the power to remove all of the lower fears that lurk on the horizon and threaten to wreak havoc in our lives, and that’s the fear of Gd.”

“But Rabbi, get real!” you might say. “We who can conquer space, disease and poverty; we who can blow up this world of ours 10 times over; is it not unrealistic for us to talk about the fear of Gd?” What does it mean to fear Gd?

On a higher level, it’s not really fear at all. The Hebrew for fearing Gd is: y’rey Hashem. Y’rey, however, actually means “awe” because Gd is awesome! If we just listen to our inner voice and feel the awesomeness of Gd while regretting our misdeeds, Gd will not only forgive us, we will feel our fears lifting.

Let’s close as we began and again sing together Rebbe Nachman’s song:

          Kol Ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, 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. The main thing is to put your awe and fear in Gd and never be afraid of whatever life throws at us. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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