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Amidst Fear, Building Refuge

Rabbi Benjamin on Kol Nidre 5780


            One of the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. that has impacted me most happened around his kitchen table. It was January of 1956, the Montgomery bus boycott was ramping up and King was receiving regular threats on his life. One night, after a long day of organizing, he arrived home very late and the phone rang. A nasty voice on the other end said: "Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die." Dr. King hung up the phone, trembling, put on a pot of coffee and sat down at the table.

            This is how he describes the next moments:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”


            I have drawn great solace from this story. It is heartening for me to hear about legendary, courageous leaders also being afraid. And I love that King didn’t deny the fear or fight it off. He named it. He met it, right there at his kitchen table. The other crucial detail for me is that the assurance he received wasn’t that God would protect him from harm. It was simply that God would be by his side. In the face of terror, fearing for his life, he felt a sense that he would not be alone. And that enabled him to go on.


            I am speaking tonight about fear, and how we might also meet it with faith and wisdom. And amidst it, or even through it, find our way together to courage and safety.


            I imagine that most of us are feeling, on a collective level, more fear than we have before. What does safety and security look like in the face of this? Both physically, as well as emotionally and spiritually, how are we to respond to fearful times?

            After the September 11 attacks, a rabbi I knew gave a sermon in which he told his community: Don’t be afraid. It was a powerful message. But it is not the message I am going to give. And that is because I do not think that telling someone, or telling ourselves, not to be afraid is necessarily helpful. In my experience denying fear does not make it go away. It in fact inhibits us from being able to respond in ways that help us. Feeling fear can be an appropriate cue for us to pay attention, to reach out to others, to take action or otherwise respond to our situation. By meeting fear intentionally and mindfully, we can help one another know safety even in the midst of fear.


            These holidays are called Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. That word “awe,” though — Yirah, with its adjective Nora — is also associated with fear. As in the “fear of God.” In general we avoid that translation in the progressive world, and for good reason. We do not view fear-based spirituality as a healthy model. But there is a weight to the words Nora and Yirah that is not necessarily conveyed by “awe.” Another translation I have appreciated is the word “apprehension.” Both in the sense of a deep grasp or understanding of what is happening, as well an awareness of the seriousness and potential consequences of a given moment.

            Tomorrow we will chant Unetaneh Tokef, as we did on Rosh Hashanah. In the prayer we call this is “a day filled with awe and trembling” — that this day is nora, and also ayom, that second word explicitly connoting dread or terror. What is it that we might be so afraid of? Well, the familiar poetry of Unetaneh Tokef follows: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before their time?” The prayer goes on: “We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered, like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades…” A catalyst for the awe and trembling is this awareness that we, like all life, will pass away.

            In this vein, Yom Kippur is often called “a rehearsal for our death.” But for the rabbis this was not a morose exercise. It was meant to wake us up more fully to our lives.

            In the midst of world events right now, these verses feel especially powerful. I think in particular of marginalized communities around the world who are facing increased threats to their livelihood and well being. And of course of the Jewish Community, as we turn the page on a year in which we suffered the Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway attacks. The fragility of life is quite present. But I share this background about the Yamim Nora’im to reveal that, from the tradition’s perspective, there is benefit in beholding fear directly. A sense that by seeing it and naming it we can channel it toward being a life-affirming force.

            “While generally devalued in our culture,” writes therapist and author Miriam Greenspan, “…emotions [such as fear] have a wisdom that is essential to the work of healing and transformation on both individual and collective levels.” In her book, Healing through the Dark Emotions, Greenspan explores the potential inherent in such emotions: in particular, fear, grief, and despair. While the common reaction, for understandable reasons, is to run from or repress them, she instructs that to do so is to make ourselves, and those around us, more vulnerable to their negative impacts. We can instead get to know “the contours of our fear” and the ways in which we need to “experience it authentically [and] speak about it openly.” Even with children, when they are afraid, she advises against telling them, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s okay.” Rather, she suggests, “We might put our arms around them and say, ‘It’s okay to be scared when scary things happen. Being aware of fear makes you stronger than pretending you don't feel it. Let’s see if we can find something to do that would make you feel better.”

            This is sound advice for adults as well. Recognizing and investigating our fear is one of the most courageous and effective approaches we can take.

            Before I go further, I want to clearly state that these are not teachings that apply the same in every instance. We are each different, and even as individuals our capacity to encounter fear varies depending on the situation and the context of our lives. I also want to underscore the distinction between mindfully feeling fear and becoming stuck in or overwhelmed by fear. For Greenspan, the mindful approach is meant to free us from being stuck or overwhelmed. But at times it is just too much, and we simply need to locate support and take care of ourselves. As always, I share these teachings in hopes that we will each hear them and derive benefit in our own ways. I do trust that by naming and attending to our fear, we suffer from it less and are able to act in wiser and more courageous fashion. But we each need to discern what is possible and appropriate in any given moment.

            With that in mind, Greenspan begins by affirming fear’s value. “Think of fear,” she writes, “not as a weakness but as information, a signal of unsafety, a usable energy, and a way of knowing.” She proposes that we begin simply by letting fear be, noticing the urge to run from it or to act on it quickly. From there we can tune into the felt sense of fear in our body, noticing the energy of it without focusing on the particular explanation we might associate with it. Then we contextualize it, inquiring about the nature of it and what it might be trying to tell us. Through this mindful witness, we are then able to discern how to ask for help and take appropriate action.

            She also offers the tool of prayer. For instance, simple phrases such as, “May I accept my fear” and “Let…me use [my fear] to help all beings who suffer” can be a way for us to name the truth of our experience, and our yearning to feel protected, as well as incline our minds toward others’ well being. You might experiment with these approaches as fear arises. Simply noticing, naming, gently wishing well for yourself and others. 

            In a sense what I am saying is that, in the presence of fear, we can begin simply  by saying, Hineini — I am here, or Hineinu — Here we are.

            On Rosh Hashanah, we explored a few of the Hineini moments in Torah. In the spirit of our theme for the year we have considered what it means for us to say Hineinu: Here we are. One of the points I made on Erev Rosh Hashanah, in saying Hineinu to our past, is that Hineini-saying moments are often uncomfortable. We would rather not be in them, and it takes great dedication to remain present amidst them.

            There are also moments of Hineini-saying that are down-right terrifying.

            One of those is when God calls to Moses at the burning bush. Hineini, Moses answers. And God tells him to return to Pharaoh and demand that he let the people go. Imagine how terrified Moses must have been by that deployment. He is being asked to return to the place from which he fled for his life. A place of cruelty and torture. Understandably, Moses asks for God’s name. He wants to know exactly what he is getting into here. Wait, you’re giving me this mission, but what does that mean? Who are you? What can you provide for me? What assurances can you give me?

            God’s answer: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I Will Be What I Will Be.”

            You want to know my name? Sorry. I don’t even know my name. The  closest I can get is, Becoming. That is my name. My essence — which is to say, the nature of Reality — is in flux. I cannot tell you exactly what you are getting into here. I cannot give you a picture of precisely what will happen.

            Saying Hineini doesn’t necessarily give us answers. It does not make life unfold in expected fashion. To say Hineini often means stepping out into the unknown. It necessitates a willingness to be vulnerable.

            But then God adds: Eyheh imakh — I will be with you. And, I will send your brother Aaron to meet you. To say Hineini is to place ourselves in relationship. When we truly say it, we remind ourselves that we are not alone.

            We are witnessing the continued rise of white nationalism, cruel anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, genuine threats to democracy and freedom, and a global climate crisis which has yet to be heeded by those with the most power to enact change. Who would sign up for this moment? Are we truly supposed to convince ourselves not to be afraid? The young leaders of the climate justice movement are administering a powerful message. Greta Thunberg fires this piercing challenge: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”

            Fear is an appropriate response to this moment. And what I draw from the burning bush episode is that we can utilize fear as a portal through which to find one another, to locate ourselves in kinship with each other. I am not saying that fear is a blessing. I am saying: Hineinu. This is the moment in which we find ourselves.  It is real. I am saying that it is possible for us to meet fear in a way that helps us not succumb to it, and even supports our acting powerfully from it. And that one of the main ways in which we can find security amidst vulnerability is through joining with one another.

            Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization doing amazing work right now on behalf of communities under attack, posts a simple slogan that feels to me like a rallying cry: “Our safety lies in solidarity.” It is understandable that after Pittsburgh and Poway many Jews have the urge to wall ourselves off. And I am not suggesting that heightened security is unwise. I think the way in which we are approaching things at Havurah, through careful discernment and community participation, is appropriate and wise. But as Rabbi Joshua Lesser offered at the Reconstructing Judaism convention last November: “Rather than just wall ourselves off, we must invest at least as much in our spiritual resilience and building connections with other communities walking similar paths.” Exactly. Whatever security measures we take on the physical plane, we must at least match them if not far exceed them in the realm of developing spiritual tools in response and, most vitally, building relationships with other communities also under threat. 

            The historian Timothy Snyder, in his book, On Tyranny, drives home this point as well. One of his lessons in combatting fascism, gleaned from the twentieth century, is, “Make eye contact and small talk.” He explains: “This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society.” Speaking of various tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century, Snyder writes that, “A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance…You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”

            He also offers this: “For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends.”

            What Snyder is pointing out is that if we simply hunker down in our comfortable environments, we will not be building bridges of trust and understanding that will be there to support us and others when we need them. My friend Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founder of Encounter, an organization which has brought thousands of Jewish leaders and emerging Jewish leaders across the Green Line to hear directly from Palestinian citizens, was asked early on in her work why she did what she was doing with prospects for peace so grim. Her response was along the lines of, “If the Middle East goes up in flames tomorrow, God forbid, we will need these relationships more than ever.” I think about that every time I connect with someone whose history or experience is very different from mine, someone whose story I might not immediately understand. And I think, we just built, or reinforced, a bridge that will make each of us, and each of our communities, safer one day.


            As I have reflected on these ideas, I have returned again and again to a line from Psalm 31: In You, God, I take refuge. The notion of refuge is beautiful to me, and captures much of what I am trying to name here. The aspiration to find refuge amidst that which is threatening or frightening.           

            Tara Brach, in her book True Refuge, writes about the distinction between the kinds of refuge that support our well-being and security and those we think protect us but don’t. “False refuges,” she calls them. She writes. “They can’t save us from what we most fear, the pain of loss and separation.” What will help us is “a refuge that is vast enough to embrace our most profound experience of suffering.” In other words, true refuge doesn’t block out fear. It involves creating a container of resilience and companionship through which we can live our lives wholeheartedly even with fear present.

            When we utilize these resources and approaches, emotions can undergo what Miriam Greenspan calls “alchemy.” As she puts it, “The lead of suffering transforms into the gold of spiritual power.” Each of the dark emotions, when attended to mindfully and with care, can nurture something healthy, connecting, and empowering. In her framework, the alchemy is: grief to gratitude, despair to faith, and fear to joy.

            Why joy? Or rather, how joy? “It’s about living fully with fear,” she writes. “Joy is what we find when we act with our fear for the sake of life. Mindful fear moves us to act with courage and loving-kindness, in the service of ourselves and others.”

            Perhaps the joy is about a certain soft spot in our hearts that is opened when we feel fear and then safety, or even the potential for safety. Or an awareness of how shared this experience is — being afraid, fearing from uncertainty and helplessness, fearing for the well-being of our loved ones. And perhaps it’s realizing the preciousness of this life that we can locate, not coincidentally but quite explicitly right there in the midst of that precariousness. When we realize not only how much we need each other but also how much we can in fact be there for and with each other, come what may. Maybe that is how fear awakens joy.

            And maybe it’s the joy that comes when we, in spite of our fear, find ways to live the life we feel called to live. Lives committed to our values, lives of rejoicing together in community, celebrating these moments we are given and performing the sacred gestures we have learned with which to mark our days. Maybe in those simple acts we can find profound joy. Perhaps more profound by virtue of our apprehension that we will not have these moments forever. And it’s not that the fear goes away, it’s that we also find a sustaining refuge alongside or even in the midst of it.


            Snyder ends his book with a quote by Hamlet, a protagonist who was shocked by the rise of a ruthless leader: “‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!’ Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes, ‘Nay, come, let’s go together.’”

            Perhaps you have wished not to be in this moment in history. We all, I venture to say, wish we did not have to face this. But, Nay, come, let’s go together.” Let us find one another. Let us build a world in which we all have refuge, in which all beings everywhere feel safe.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784