Courage is Easier Than Fear
A Sermon for Second Day Rosh Hashanah
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation,
My friends, we live in scary times. Just a few weeks ago, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Announcements about a “credible threat” reminded us of our continued vulnerability to attack and the need for continued vigilance.
Of course, many other “threats” confront us: a wobbly economy; growing unrest in the Middle East; Israel’s increasing isolation and vulnerability; earthquakes, hurricanes, and torrential rains.
If that weren’t enough, each of us faces our own “threats:” Most of us know at least someone battling cancer. Perhaps that battle is personal, if not against cancer, then against another disease. Perhaps we face un- or under-employment. Perhaps we fear for our children, fear for our parents, fear for our country, fear for Israel, fear for the world. There is more than enough to fear about today.
How do we cope with all this fear?
Do we just ignore what might scare us? Skip the news because it is so grim? A friend of mine recently asked us not to discuss politics because it got her too depressed.
Do we try to control what we can since there is so much we can’t? In his book Conquering Fear, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about a couple he met on a plane. They were on their way to a New York fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria as the guests of the king and queen of Thailand. He expressed his surprise that they were sharing the last row of coach with him rather than sitting in business class. The husband replied, “My wife is more comfortable in the last row. She’s read about lots of planes that have crashed, but she’s never read of a plane being rear-ended.” [i]
Do we just take it on faith that everything will turn out OK, either because we know that is true, percentage wise, or because we have faith, faith in God, faith in our doctors, faith in our leaders, faith in our family and friends?
Faith is important. It is not only that I believe God created a world in which the default is that good things naturally happen more often than bad things, except when we human beings mess it up. Faith is important because knowing God is in our cornier gives us the strength to hold off worry until there is actually something to worry about. When something to actually worry about comes along, knowing God is in our corner gives us the strength to get through whatever we have face in ways we never thought we could, especially when that means standing up for what we know is right. As the psalmist writes, “The Lord is my light and my help. Whom shall I fear?”
No one, as long as God is in our corner.
But faith alone is not enough. God helps those who help themselves. So how do we help ourselves deal with our fear? How do we live whole, happy, and meaningful lives in scary times?
Let me tell you a story. It is about a woman you may know. She, too, lived through scary times. Her story tells us a lot about how we can get through scary times, too.
This woman was born into an upper class New York society family in 1884 when the role of women was strictly limited. Orphaned young, she was raised by a dour grandmother. Married young, she was tyrannized by a domineering mother-in-law.
One day, her husband, who was under secretary of the Navy, asked her to visit some shell shocked veterans. What she found appalled her. Men who had risked their lives for their country were shackled and left to rot in squalid conditions. She broke with social convention and refused to turn a blind eye. She was shy, timid and had no confidence in herself, even as a wife and a mother. Yet she realized, “What one has to do usually can be done.” She brought the problem to the government. She involved the press and the Red Cross. She raised enough money to hire trained staff and renovate the hospital.
A few years later, when her husband came down with polio and decided to retire, she risked her husband’s affection, her mother-in law’s wrath, and her family’s happiness to encourage him to return to public life.[ii] She overcame her shyness to represent him at public events and lure him back to politics. As a result of her efforts, he eventually won the presidency, serving during some of our nation’s darkest hours: the Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War Two. At his first inauguration, in 1933, he gave us these immortal words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
You probably know the author of these words: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd President. The woman who inspired him and taught him this kind of courage was his wife Eleanor. She stood up for the poor and disenfranchised, inspiring much of the New Deal. Though the press and political opponents mercilessly attacked her, she was not diverted from what she felt was fair and just, from what she knew should be done and could be done to do good.
After FDR’s death, as the first American and only woman Ambassador to the new United Nations, Eleanor almost singlehandedly stopped the Soviets who wanted WW II refugees repatriated to the land of their birth rather than allowing them to go to the land of their choice. Some of us wouldn’t be here today if she had not succeeded.
How did the timid Eleanor become this courageous “First Lady of the World?” She started with one step, feeling responsible for those wounded vets and sticking with it until what should be done was done to do good.
Near the end of her life, Eleanor wrote, “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”[iii]
My friends, fear is a natural reaction, a healthy, God given reaction that helps us identify and respond effectively to an immediate danger. But God never intended us to be fearful day in and day out.
Do you know what one of the most frequent statements in Hebrew Scripture is? “Do not fear!” Why? Because God knows how dangerous and debilitating fear is. We do, too. Throughout history, we Jews have been the victims of the power of fear, the kind of fear that drives blame, rationalizes hatred, and breeds violence. Fear makes people do all sorts of things they know deep down are not right and often very wrong.
“Do not fear!” Why? Because fear weakens our minds, destroys our bodies, and undermines our relationships. Fear is worse than the worst illness because it robs the ill and those caring for them of the ability to use the time they have together wisely and well. Fear is worse than the most difficult challenges facing us today, facing our congregation, facing our nation, facing Israel, facing the world, because it robs us of the clarity to see what has to be done, the courage to know it can be done, and the fortitude to do it in a way that brings good, and not harm, into the world.
That is why courage is easier than fear. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, we, too, do not have to become heroes overnight. We, too, can take one step at a time, meeting whatever comes up, as it comes up. We, too, can find, with each step, that whatever we face is not as overwhelming as we thought it would be. We, too, can find, with each step, that we have the strength to stare down whatever confronts us.
My friends, courage is not only easier than fear, courage is the only effective way I know to master fear.
Perhaps this is why, in our Torah reading this morning, God tests Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Like yesterday’s text, this text, too, has always bothered me. Why would a just, all knowing and all powerful God ask any man to sacrifice his son? Why would Abraham, who was quick to argue with God to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, not argue to save the life of his own son, Isaac? What was the test? Blind obedience? That is not really what God wants from us. Abraham’s argument over Sodom and Gemorrah proves that. No, I think God was testing Abraham to see if he could learn to master his fear.
We might not think of Abraham as a fearful man. After all, he leaves his homeland at God’s call. He wages a war to rescue his nephew. He stands up to God over Sodom and Gemorrah. But he also prevaricates, not lying exactly, but not telling the truth either, by calling Sarah his sister when he is afraid he will be killed when others see his beautiful Sarah and want her for themselves. She may very well have been his sister, at least legally, since many wives had sister-wife status in Mesopotamia.
But things get pretty dicey when Abraham lets fear get the better of him. Sarah is taken and could have been raped if not for God’s intervention, not once but twice! Abraham could have alienated powerful local rulers if they hadn’t recognized that Abraham (or more rightly Sarah) enjoyed God’s powerful patronage.
Abraham gets himself and Sarah into this pickle because fear clouds Abraham’s moral compass. That is unacceptable in the man destined to father the nation whose very Mission includes being the moral compass of the world. You can’t be a moral compass if you are controlled by fear. You won’t stand up for your moral conscience, of what you know is good and just and fair, if you let fear get the better of you.
Abraham cannot achieve his God intended purpose until he masters his fear. That is why God forces Abraham to confront his greatest fear: the fear of dying without an heir.
Not having an heir has been Abraham’s fear for decades. He prays and worries God for an heir. It is not until late in life that God finally blesses him with two sons. When he has to exile his eldest son, Ishmael, he knows he, at least, still has Isaac. In asking Abraham to sacrifice this last remaining son, God forces Abraham to confront his greatest fear, step by step.
Only by binding Isaac as a sacrifice and raising the knife does Abraham finally become master of his fear. That is when God stops Abraham. God does not require human sacrifice. God requires courage. Courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is the ability to master fear. That is the test Abraham passes: he learns how to see what must be done, however difficult, however frightening, however daunting, and still do it to do good in the world.
Of all the stories in the Torah, our Sages chose to read this story today because fear often stops us from fulfilling our God intended purpose. They chose this story to inspire us to master our greatest fears so we, too, can see what should be done and do it to do good.
Like Abraham, like Eleanor Roosevelt, we, too, do not have to become heroes overnight. We, too, can take one step at a time, meeting whatever comes up, as it comes up. We, too, can find that whatever we face is not as overwhelming as we thought it would be. We, too, can find that we have the strength to stare down whatever confronts us, day by day, step by step.
We don’t have to turn into heroes overnight. We just have to take that first step, then the next one and the one after that.
Courage may be easier than fear but it is not necessarily easy. So I want to give you something today that hopefully will make having courage a little easier. I want to give you something today that can help you take that first step, and the next one, and the one after that.
In my kitchen, I keep a small clay pot. Perhaps you have seen it. In this pot, I keep a number of rocks and shells I have collected over the years, including this rock. There really is nothing special about this rock except for the place I found it: on the shore of Caesarea on Israel’s coast, the same Caesarea I spoke about yesterday. Over the years, many Jews and Romans got along well here. But at times, Caesarea was the center of Roman persecution. It was here Rabbi Akiva was executed. We will read about him on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Akiva was one of our greatest teachers of Torah. When the Roman emperor Hadrian outlawed teaching Torah on pain of death, Rabbi Akiva defied the decree and continued to teach. He saw what had to be done and understood it could be done. He knew he had to keep teaching Torah because if he didn’t, his students would stop teaching Torah, and then others would stop teaching Torah, and then the Jews would forget Torah. He knew if we Jews forgot Torah, we would forget who we are and why we are here. We would disappear.
For Akiva, the courage to teach, despite the fear of being killed for it, was easier to live with than living a life knowing he had failed God, history, and his People. He even continued to teach his students from the window of his prison and as the fires rose around him at the stake. Though the ashes of his body were scattered to the winds, his words continue to guide us today. The Roman Empire is long gone but we Jews return to Caesarea, live in Caesarea, build a Jewish nation around Caesarea, proving that Rabbi Akiva was right. As long as we remember who we are and why we are here, we will survive.
This rock from the shore of Caesarea reminds me, whenever I feel things are difficult, that they have been worse. This rock reminds me, whenever I think things are worse, that things can get better. That is why this rock is in my kitchen where I can see it; where I can pick it up and hold it when I need to remember courage is not only easier than fear, it masters fear so that what I should do I can usually do, however difficult it may at first appear.
I first learned about the power of rocks from one of our members, Janet Fishbein, who has rocks from her vacations in Maine along her kitchen counter. I was reminded of it by a colleague of mine, Rabbi Anthony Fratello, who has a rock similar to mine, but from the Dachau death camp.
Two years ago, Rabbi Fratello gave each of his congregants a rock as, what he called, an antidote to fear. I also want to give you each a rock. But not as an antidote to fear. I don’t think fear can be so easily mastered. I want to give you each a rock as the first step in mastering fear so we can see that what we have to do can usually be done.
I want to give you a rock as the first step in your courageous journey of one step after the other of mastering fear. Not my rock, of course, because I have only this one. But a rock that is special because I bought it especially for you. I have one rock for each person on the bimah this morning and I have one rock for each of you. When you leave later, you can pick up your rock from one of our ushers who will have a basket of them near our main doors.
Pick out your rock and carry it with you in your pocket or bag. Put it on your kitchen counter or next to your bed. Whenever things get difficult, pick up your rock and remember things have been worse. When things are worse, pick up your rock and remember things can get better.[iv] Hold your rock and remember that courage is not only easier than fear, it masters fear and enables us to see that what must be done can usually be done, if not in one giant leap, then in the little steps we take one step at a time. Hold your rock and know that you can take that step, and when you do, you are not alone. God is with you. The spirits of Abraham, Rabbi Akiva, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, are with you. And I am with you.
We may be living in scary times but we do not have to live scared. In the year ahead, may the blessings of courage fill us and inspire us so we can see that what must be done can be done to do good, one step at a time. And let us say, Amen.
[i] Harold Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (NY: Anchor, 2009): 13.
[ii] Cf. The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965), written by Archibald MacLeish.
[iii] Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living, (Harper & Brothers Publishing, New York, 1960, page 4.1 My appreciation to Bob Clark, Supervisory Archivist, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, for providing the citation for this quote, the staff of the Eleanor Roosevelt National Park in Hyde Park, New York for their assistance and gracious welcome, and to Reeni Goldin, of Rachel’s Skytop Cottages, who hosted my family in her Eleanor Roosevelt Cottage this summer, inspiring, in part, this sermon.
[iv] My appreciation to Rabbi Fratello for sharing this idea in his article, “Remember Not to Fear,” The American Rabbi Anthology, Vol. 2 (2010): 141.