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Toward Shabbat: Yitro

What are we supposed to do with so much fear?

We are in the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, frustrated and beyond tired of thinking about the virus, talking about the virus, trying to evade the virus, testing for the virus. Herd immunity doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now, so we ask ourselves: What will come after omicron? Will life ever be normal again?

And where is our country headed? We have been hearing for a while now about impending threats to our democracy, particularly after the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and as voting rights legislation appears more and more elusive. Many of us are already panicking about 2024. Will it be a free, legitimate, and fair election? Will our democratic system hold? Are we in for a coup? Could we end up with a right-wing autocracy, or even worse?

Several articles in respectable publications have recently speculated about the possibility of a civil war. “Civil war” in America used to mean 1861-1865, or maybe Spain in 1936-1939. But now, with so much mistrust and hostility in the national air, the deep erosion of solidarity, and the unwillingness of our political leaders to  compromise, the civil war alarm is being sounded—and not just of the cultural civil war already raging, but of actual war between citizens in this country.

On top of everything, must we now also fear going to synagogue? We’re afraid that, after last weekend’s horrific hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, it’s too dangerous to go to services. We have been on edge since the antisemitic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, and at the Chabad of Poway six months later.

At BJ, we’ve increased security in our Sanctuary and Community House and have held multiple security training sessions with staff, leadership, and community members. Congregation Beth Israel’s Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who acted in a true heroic fashion during the terrible ordeal he faced with his fellow hostages, said that security training allowed them to get out safely. So although the NYPD, the FBI, and the Department of Justice have stated that there is no reason to believe there is any threat to synagogues here in New York, we will conduct new training sessions soon anyway. Why must we even think of hunkering down in our houses of prayer and turning our communities into fortresses? Why on earth must we and our children associate synagogues with fear? But, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker explained in an interview, “We don’t always get to deal with the reality we want. We have to deal with reality as it exists.”

We live these days with what feels like an inordinate amount of randomness and unpredictability. Many feel confused and disoriented. And we all fear.

I wish we could find refuge in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Taken out of their context, tossed around as a proverb or an aphorism, to me these words sound empty and untrue. We have a lot to fear, and not just fear itself. The question is, What do we do with so much fear?

Denial and burying our heads in the sand is an option; sinking into fatalism and hopelessness is another. But then what? Just watch it all go to waste? How is it helpful to insist on the certainty that nothing will change? That we are condemned to live in a world in decline and that the future will be worse than the present?

I suggest that faith and defiance are much better choices for how to deal with our fear. Faith requires that we live in a state of agitation, that we be audacious, that we make our fear and despair springboards for action. This is not the time to retreat but to lift ourselves from our present predicament, to involve ourselves, to be more selfless, to pursue greater solidarity and social transformation. Not to simply try our best, but to do the impossible to help bring about the radical breakthrough that will usher in a new time when we won’t have to fear so much.