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B’chukotai: Fear Itself

V’radaf otam kol aleh nidaf…V’chashlu ish b’achiv mipnei cherev v’rodef ayin

The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight…even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword. (Leviticus 26:36-37)

Last week’s portion, B’har, laid out the need for the earth to receive a sabbatical year every seventh year, and our responsibility to let the land rest so that we might live in proper balance with the earth. B’chukotai now describes the consequences we can expect if we do and if we do not fulfill these directives. If we give the land its sabbaths, we will live in peace and harmony. If we deny the earth its sabbaths, the outcome will be dire. In terrifying detail, B’chukotai describes a cascade of misfortune that will befall those who exploit the land without pause. The land will reject us; it will literally spit us out. We will become homeless and hounded, and lose all dignity and self-respect. As our exile reaches its nadir, we will become so debased that we will be consumed by anxiety and fear: “The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight…”

As always, the Torah then offers a message of hope – there will ultimately be return and renewal, and another chance for redemption. But the vivid language of fear is what stays with the reader: “…even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword.”

B’chukotai, along with its companion portion B’har, offer eerily prescient warnings for our own era of the potentially devastating consequences if humanity is unable to live in sustainable balance with our planet. Will the earth spit us out until “it makes up for the Sabbath years that were denied it”? (Lev. 26:34) What manner of terrifying consequences are we facing if we fail to find a sustainable rhythm of rest to balance our drive for attainment and consumption?

These questions haunt me as I reflect on the Torah’s narrative. But the teaching that I want to pursue at this moment is less about our collective fate then about our individual psyches as we each confront the unknown horizon. The Torah describes our very lowest condition as one in which we are driven by fear and anxiety. That is, even more debilitating than being actually terrorized is the state in which we perpetually live in fear, permanently adrenalized, unable to distinguish a real threat from the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind. In this condition we are unable to manifest that most sublime and central aspect of being a person: the ability to remain aware of our surroundings, assess what our next action might be, and then act with volition. To be reduced to anxiety-driven, fight-or-flight reactivity, unable to assess what might actually be going on around us, disables our greatest human gift: the ability to think, to decide, and to act.

Many of you will be familiar with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav that we sing every year at Rosh Hashanah: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’fached klal” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” The message is noble and inspiring. The melody was composed in Israel by Rabbi Baruch Chait during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. If there was ever a moment that called for Jews to cross that narrow bridge fearlessly, it was at that terrifying moment when Israel’s life hung in the balance.

Yet many have pointed out that the instruction to “not fear at all” is unrealistic. Truly, courage is the ability to act despite one’s fears. When standing on the cusp of important decisions, even decisions that are not life threatening, who is not afraid? Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” So maybe Reb Nachman’s instruction needs to be more nuanced.

And, in fact, Reb Nachman’s original statement is more nuanced. Baruch Chait created an eminently singable lyric, but, as I learned from Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, he did so by simplifying Reb Nachman’s original words.

Reb Nachman taught:

V’da, she’ha’adam tzarich la’avor al gesher tzar me’od me’od, v’ha’klal v’ha’ikar – she’lo yitpached klal.

And know, that a human being must cross over a very, very narrow bridge, and it is critically important that he not fill himself with fear. (Likutei Tinyana 48, italics mine)

Ah, the difference a verb construct can make! L’fached לפחד means “to fear”; l’hitpached להתפחד means “to cause oneself to fear”. Reb Nachman was not telling us not to fear. Reb Nachman was telling us that, despite life being full of potential dangers, don’t freak yourself out! Indeed, life is challenging enough without us working ourselves into a lather of anxiety about what might happen next. Not only does filling oneself with fear not help in any way at all, it actually makes us less able to navigate the narrow bridge. We all know this of course – the challenge we all face is to remain aware of our anxieties, and not allow them to rule us. We must work on distinguishing between external risks and internal anxieties. Fear makes us rigid. Balancing across the narrow bridge of life requires suppleness as we take each step. There is no guarantee that we will not fall. There are no guarantees. But rigidity inevitably makes us less able to make the subtle shifts of weight and direction that allow us to remain upright as we walk the tightrope of our lives.

Indeed, at the beginning of B’chukotai, as God describes the blessings that will accrue to us if we live in balance with the land, God says “I, YHVH, am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke so that you could walk erect.” (Lev. 26:13) I see this erect posture, this liberation from the oppressive terror of slavery, as the direct contrast to the debased condition in which we will once again find ourselves if we lose our balance and succumb to fear, falling over one another in flight even though no one pursues us. True freedom includes the inner capacity to distinguish between real and imagined dangers, and therefore rather than cower or flee or lash out indiscriminately, to instead assess our fears and yet walk upright on our paths.

The world is scary enough; you have Reb Nachman’s and my own passionate encouragement not to additionally fill yourself with fear, and I welcome your encouragement in return.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan