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The liberating fear of Yom Kippur

The Days of Awe should be awe-inspiring, shaking us out of our routines and reminding us of our vulnerability and the fragility of life
Twin Towers. (Daniel Voyager, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Twin Towers. (Daniel Voyager, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

We live in a scary and unpredictable world. We never really know what tomorrow, or today, will bring.

One unremarkable morning during graduate school, my friend and I rode the Long Island Railroad from my parents’ house in Great Neck, NY into Manhattan. As it was a few days before Rosh Hashana, I used the 25-minute ride to recite selichot. When we arrived at Penn Station, my friend asked if she could borrow my selichot book and return it to me that night in Washington Heights. I happily agreed.

By the time we met up 10 hours later, the entire world had changed. It was almost impossible to comprehend what had transpired in those few hours between our passing of the selichot book back and forth.

The date was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

I remember walking through the streets of Manhattan that clear, sunny morning, without a cloud in the sky and thinking about how calm everything was. And then less than a half-hour later, the first plane hit. And then the second. Within a few hours, thousands of innocent lives had been taken, and countless more were altered forever. And the world was a different place.

There are not many things that human beings dislike more than fear. That overwhelming sensation that something is not right, not as it should be. The feeling that I am not safe, something is at risk, I don’t feel settled. I am not in control. I do not know what lies in store. We do our best to counter this instinct and try our hardest to overcome it and not let it overtake us.

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt once told us, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “The whole wide world is a very narrow bridge. But the ikar, the most important thing, is לא לפחד כלל — to not be afraid at all.”

But when we come to the Yamim Noraim, to the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we find ourselves saying over and over:

וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אֱלקֵינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ.

“And, so, too, Hashem, our God, cast your fear upon all Your works and Your dread upon all that You have created.”

It is not simple to understand what we are asking for here. Do we really want fear to be our motivator in doing God’s will? Should our relationship with our Creator be rooted in our desire to avoid the punishment and wrath that He could inflict upon us if we don’t perform appropriately?

I want my children and students to feel good and positive about their Judaism. I want Torah to speak to them. I want them to feel connected and to embrace their heritage. I want them to want to be another link in the chain of our great tradition. And I want their, and all of humanity’s, commitments and relationships with God to stem from a place of trust and not fear.

So why would we ask God to make us afraid?

In On Repentance, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses this question:

A very eminent psychiatrist once said to me: ‘Had I the authority to do so, I would eliminate the prayer recited on the High Holy Day that begins with the words, “Cast Thy fear,” as fear is the major cause of the mental illnesses that beset mankind. In order to preserve one’s mental health one should be free of fears, and so there is certainly no reason why one should ever pray for fear.’

“Though I am not a psychiatrist, what he said helped me to understand the true nature of that prayer which was ordained by the Sages of Israel. And that is what I told that psychiatrist: `Everyone seems to be beset with fears of all kinds. Some are afraid that they will not be able to succeed in their careers, others fear losing their wealth or status or that they will fail to attain sufficient prominence. Many people are afraid of sickness and bodily weakness…Man is plagued constantly by all sorts of lesser fears. I am not a psychiatrist, but I do know that one major source of fear can wipe out all of these lesser fears. What fear can overtake man, thereby uprooting all other fears, such as that of failure, of poverty, of old age, of rejection or of disease? Only the fear of the Lord! We pray that this great fear will free us from those other ones which lurk everywhere, upsetting our lives.” (223)

Sometimes fear can be liberating. Fear of God can allow us to submit, to let go, to acknowledge that we are not really in control. Fear of God can enable us to focus on our circle of influence instead of on those things that we do not really have any power over and cannot determine.

Sometimes a little bit of fear is also necessary to help us cut through the illusions that we create for ourselves and to force us to confront the realities of our life and of the decisions we have made. We ask God to bestow His fear upon us, to allow us to feel jolted even for just a moment, so that we can recall what is important to us and what we want our priorities in life to be.

Usually, we go through life trying to do our best and to fix small things that we notice need improvement along the way. We don’t necessarily stop, though, to question the very premises and assumptions that guide our path. We are too busy, too scared, too apathetic, or too tired to think about the underlying foundations that determine our lives and how we lead them.

During these early days of the month of Tishrei, however, we are asked to reconsider the entire direction of our lives.

In the words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:

While generally one relates to specific sins within the context of his spiritual existence, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur the obligation is to examine that existence proper.” (By His Light, 223)

The “Days of Awe” are meant to be awe-inspiring. They are meant to shake us out of our routines and enable us to think with more perspective. They remind us of our temporary nature, of our dependence, of our vulnerability and the fragility of life.

And what then?

In Out of the Whirlwind, Rav Soloveitchik describes that:

When we experience the swing back from an illusory eternity to a temporal reality, a new category is discovered, namely that of service…Our existence is not just a coincidence, a mechanical fact, a meaningless caprice on the part of nature or providence, but a meaningful assignment which abounds in responsibility and commitment.” (147)

When we can feel and experience the fear of God upon us even briefly, we are reminded that our existence here on this Earth is full of purpose, responsibilities, roles to play, and commitments to keep.

This Yom Kippur, we should not be afraid to feel a little fear. We should not be scared to feel a little uneasy.

We pray, though, that we can transform this instinctual fear of God into a deeper awe and reverence that propels us towards good decisions in our lives and towards His service from a place of trust and respect. As the passage continues:

וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים. וְיֵעָשׂוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת, לַעֲשׂות רְצונְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם.

“Let all works revere You and all creatures prostrate themselves before You. Let them all become a single society, to do Your will wholeheartedly.

And maybe, therein, lies the blessing of “chayyim,” of life, that we so doggedly pursue during this season.

May we merit to be sealed in the Book of Life.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg teaches Israeli and American students in the Beit Midrash l'Nashim-Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a Yoetzet Halacha and a contributing editor for Deracheha: Womenandmitzvot.org. She made aliyah with her family to Alon Shvut in July 2011 after working as a Yoetzet Halacha for several synagogues in New Jersey and teaching in Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School.
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