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On fear, Days of Awe

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/17/2006
Location: Makor Or
In Topics: Judaism / Jewish Meditation

One of the most basic facts about The Days of Awe is that they are awesome; it’s the time when we quake in our boots before the divine, remember with humility how small we are, how pitiful are all our works, and how little it takes to wipe us away.

One of the most basic facts about The Days of Awe is that they are awesome; it’s the time when we quake in our boots before the divine, remember with humility how small we are, how pitiful are all our works, and how little it takes to wipe us away. As we come to the beginning of the year we are also recognizing that it is the end of the year. We take stock of what we’ve done and been in the last year, and we try our best to make amends inside and out for whatever we may have done that was less than worthy of us. The symbolism couldn’t be more clear: the book of life, in which is inscribed who shall live and who shall die, is opened and remains open throughout the Days of Awe until it is closed at the neilah Service on Yom Kippur. So we have that time to cleanse our hearts and make teshuvah, to reckon and atone for our mistakes, and to offer them to God in faith that – as the prayer we repeat so often tells us – God is merciful and all forgiving and our supplications and good deeds will avert or at least soften the decree.

So this is the Jewish style of celebrating the new year: no champagne and funny hats. No forgetting the past and joyfully anticipating the future, but – in the present moment of prayer and struggle to find our connection to God – reviewing and purifying the past, so that we can go on renewed. I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable with this process because it isn’t pleasant. I think most people would prefer joy and happiness and find the liturgy of the Days of Awe a little depressing and over the top. Why dwell on the past, why dredge up our vulnerability, especially our mistakes? So negative! Are we really that bad? And even if we are, shouldn’t we move on, just try to do better next time? A friend of mine is writing a Buddhist book and he was consulting with Sylvia Boorstein who told him what I have been hearing from my friends in publishing “Buddhist books are not selling. They are too negative. Happiness is selling. Joy is selling.” This goes for the Days of Awe too – they are not so popular. The apple and honey part is very popular though. I know people for whom that is the one and only Days of Awe ritual they participate in. Even people who go to synagogue tend not to want to look at the liturgy too closely.

And it’s true that most of us are not such awful people, not major sinners. Do we really have so much to atone for? Well for one thing, note that we are not just atoning for our own personal sins. We are remembering all the sins of all of us and we are saying, that’s my sin too, I am also responsible for this. I have been going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services all my life, and I have been mostly paying attention, but it only occurred to me a year or two ago that this was the case- that atonement is not only particular, it is universal, and this is profound, moving, and also disturbing to contemplate – that we are all responsible, we stand absolutely in solidarity with the whole human mess and have to go before God to answer for all of it.

And another thing – in a more profound sense, we ARE all sinners. Not that we have committed horrible or even minor immoral acts- though probably we have. But we have not remained in touch with God, we have gotten distracted, we have lost our way, our connection, and this is why no matter how good we are we need to return. This is a deeper question than whether or not we have sinned and have to atone. It’s simply built in to what we are, to our human consciousness that can dread death and imagine eternity, that we need a connection with God. And it’s built in to our human consciousness, that desires and schemes and deceives, that we are constantly losing that connection. To me this is the meaning of the Adam and Eve story and also the whole of the Torah: we are necessarily in a relationship with God because of what we are and we keep losing track of that relationship because of what we are. Israel means struggle.

It seems to me that a lot of people are oppressed by this relationship because it is so difficult. It looks like a parental relationship. God as Big Daddy, neurotic super ego we all want to get out from under. Goodness knows our psychological sophistication shoes us how toxic this is and we know from personal experience how devastating it can be. No accident probably that the basic concepts of modern psychology were worked out by Jews. Freud worried about this and it’s why he loved Jung so much- he was the single non Jew in the early psychoanalytical circle. And for sure the Torah and the High Holiday liturgy can sound like Freud’s wildest fantasies, super ego on the rampage.

But on the deepest human level it’s not like this at all. And this I think has been our special mission at Makor Or – to bring our relationship to God, through meditation practice, to a deeper more basic level. At this level we see that our human vulnerability, which causes us so much anxiety and fear, can only be met by our embracing a space that includes that vulnerability yet goes beyond it, something not exactly outside of us, but also not the same as us either. Our consciousness is as God’s consciousness, and at this level of our being we can meet God and be met by God as Torah says Moses did, face to face, as a friend. This is teshuvah – to return to God face to face, to return to what we are, to bring the heart back from its inevitable wandering and lusting and wanting and scheming and allow it to rest in its basic nature, which is wider than we are. Meditation practice helps us realize this.

What impresses me this year is that during the Days of Awe the basis for our practice of teshuvah is fear. During the holidays fear is actually our practice. The liturgy over and over again invokes our fear and our vulnerability and awe in God’s presence as the basis for our connecting with God. So I would like to say more about the practice of fear.

The first thing that impresses me about fear is how pervasive it is. We invoke it in the liturgy and this helps to bring it to the surface, but the truth is it is there all the time. I talk to a lot of people about their spiritual practice and am amazed at how often the question of fear comes up. People who function quite well, and live successful lives, even successful personal lives, tell me that deep down they are quite afraid. Of what? Of life, of death, of failure, of rejection, of revealing who they really are, of engaging their lives fully without holding back – of loving wholeheartedly – of never being able to love – or never really being loved – of all of this or maybe none of it, it’s hard to say. But the fear is quite real. Once in my dharma seminar we spent a month studying anger. And we found that anger and irritation is really common, it comes up many times during a day, and when you look at it closely, most of the time you see that fear is underneath it: things don’t go as we would like them to, we see that the world is not cooperative with our wishes and needs, we know there is nothing we can do about this, the world and others are much more powerful than we are – so we get angry and irritated and this hides the fundamental fear we feel.

So fear is deep and fundamental. It is more than an emotion among many other emotions. Where does fear come from? I think it comes from the structure of identity.

We all take quite for granted our sense of being someone. The body, the thoughts, feelings, desires, cherished viewpoints, relationships – all this is us. But all of it is actually pretty shaky stuff. The body ages and dies. The thoughts come and go and are most of the time boring or unreliable. The feelings are also unreliable and mostly unsatisfactory – and the ones we like we can’t produce at will, and when they do come they pass away all too quickly. Our viewpoints are mostly unexamined, it’s debatable whether we actually believe them, and our relationships are as apt to drive us crazy as make us happy. In other words, our identity is inherently dubious and entirely unstable. At the deepest levels of our psyche we know this and are afraid.

If identity is the human problem it is also the solution. We need to expand and refine our identity. This is the only way to deal with our basic fear. When during the High Holidays we open up to our fear and, based on that fear, reach out to God this is exactly what we are doing. We are saying, ok my usual sense of identity seems to work just fine in my everyday life but when it comes to being itself, when it comes to life and death matters, which are always only a breath away, it doesn’t work. So today, On R H or Y K what am I? I am one who, standing on the ground of fear and radical human vulnerability, willing to admit fully what I am, reach out to God as God’s friend and partner. I am a husband a father a worker, a fool maybe, a distracted person, but I am also God’s companion, I am God’s expression in this world. God alone is nothing, maybe with a capital N but still, nothing. God needs others, needs us, in order to realize God’s self. That’s why God creates a world, so that this world can be God’s expression. And God creates human beings in God’s image, that is, as conscious beings, capable of profound mindful awareness, so that God can have someone to talk to. God talks because we are capable of listening. That’s why the shema is our central prayer. Listen. God is talking. Love God with all your heart and all your might and remain mindful of this every day all day long. And God makes demands: live righteously, live profoundly, don’t forget who you are. Return over and over again to Me. And we have to respond to God’s words and God’s demands.

Here’s a story from Sailing Home: the spiritual Odyssey of Return:

I have a Zen friend who has been a monk for thirty years or so. Over all that time he has been faithful to his practice and has, at least to the outward eye, done quite well. But a few years ago he began to talk to me about how frightened he felt inside. He had worked out over the years good ways of coping with his fear so that it neither bothered him much, nor was it noticeable to others. But he was beginning to find this constant coping with and tolerating of fear no longer acceptable, and that is why he came to me. But what could I do? He was already meditating and doing all the things I usually recommend that people do – and he had been doing these things for years. I didn’t know what to say to him. Some time later he told me that he had figured out for himself what to do: he asked for help. My question was, who do you ask? “I don’t know,” he told me. “When I feel the fear, I just ask for help: ‘please help me,’ I say, out loud if no one is around, or silently.” “Is it working?” I asked him. “Yes it is,” he told me. A year or two later he came again to see me. He said he was still working on the practice of asking for help but that now he wanted to extend the practice. He looked me in the eye, with tears streaming down his face. “Please help me,” he said to me.

So when we finally admit our fear, engage in the practice of fear, letting go of all our various strategies of avoiding it, like anger, distraction, or despair, and then standing on our fear find a way to return to God we are also returning to the world. Because God isn’t elsewhere. God is right here, sitting with us on our cushion, with us at home, in the store, on the street, in the car. And when we connect with God we will eventually be able to connect with everything in our lives, beginning with our own emotions, our families, and finally everyone and everything else. To return to God is to return to the world but in love rather than fear. So that’s the path of teshuvah – from fear to love. From exile to home.

Will we actually do this? Will we finally get it right? I think there is a dream that we will, and this dream is one of the most precious gifts of the Jewish people to the world. We need this dream because it is a hope that sustains us and we need hope. In order to have the courage to look truly at our own life and the world we need hope, the sort of hope that can fuel our actions and our words. But the truth is, the Days of Awe come back every year, and this means that the process of turning fear into love goes on and on, day after day, year after year, and it’s not finished yet nor can we expect that it will be soon. But this is our human life, and, in the end, yes Sylvia!, it’s our joy and our happiness. Because joy and happiness are not the opposite of fear and vulnerability- maybe they are in the book business but not in real life. We find joy and happiness in returning again and again to God. We find it in reality as it is, which means in our practice, that we, fortunately, share together.

During Elul we end service with 27th psalm: