Be Not Afraid (Not a Halloween Sermon) - Parashat Lekh-L'kha

This is not a Halloween sermon. I need to start that way, because there’s no way you would conclude otherwise if I didn’t. To be clear, I’m not a fan of Halloween. Nonetheless, completely separately to the events going on - or not going on - outside tonight, I want to talk about fear. 

The world can be a scary place. We are probably all more intimately aware of that now than we were this time last year. I feel anxiety on the street just because people try to pass by me on the path. We are constantly doing risk assessment, worrying about catching this plague, watching the political scene as they decide our fates, watching numbers climb scarily high. And perhaps a result of spending more and more time in our own homes is that we have retreated to the small corner of the world that we can control - which makes walking into the uncontrollable outside even more concerning. And then, of course, there is a whole world scene outside of the pandemic that just never seems to stop for a breath.

I’ve been thinking about fear in the context of the family we are reading about today. We just read about how, after the wars between the kings, after Avram has intervened and saved Lot, the Holy One says to Avram: אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ. Do not be afraid, Avram; I am a shield to you.

In next week’s parashah, an angel will say the same thing to Hagar, once she has been exiled to the wilderness with her son: al tir’ee. But it occurs to me that in the midst of this, nobody said those words to Sarah. 

Cathy Shad of Netivot Shalom in California writes about Sarah’s response to Hagar as a response of fear. Sarah, after all, is known in the Torah and in the midrash as a particularly warm and hospitable character. But once her son arrives on the scene, she looks at Hagar - the handmaid - and Hagar’s son Ishmael, and she demands that they leave the camp. Cathy Shad writes: ‘Only a very deep, all-consuming fear could have driven Sarah, famed for her hospitality, to abandon two members of her own family. It feels to me that Sarah’s fear literally got the best of her, that it was so all-encompassing that she lost her ability to feel pious, loyal, or hospitable.’ 

Piety, loyalty, and hospitality are not characteristics that shine through when we make decisions based on fear.

And the next step in that story finds Hagar in the wilderness and the boy crying out. Hagar is so overcome with her fear that she doesn’t even see the fountain of water until the angel points it out to her. When the angel says al-tir’ee (do not be afraid) to Hagar, Rabbi Sharon Brous reimagines the angel as saying: ‘I can’t promise you that everything will be okay. But I can tell you that you will not be able to save yourself or your son if you live with a blinding fear that it prevents you from seeing redemption when it sits squarely in front of you.’ 

Maybe this is the answer to fear. ‘Al-tira’ - don’t be afraid. Maybe fear is simply something to be avoided. After all, we make some of our worst decisions when they are rooted in fear. Fear literally stops us from being able to think straight, to see the wider context - it forces us to respond to what is directly in front of us, because those parts of our brain that are working with logic shut down. 

But it’s not very good advice - in my opinion - to say ‘do not fear’ when there’s rather a lot to be afraid of. There’s no switch to flip  to get rid of fear. 

And even if there was, would we really want to? Fear, after all, can be appropriate. It can even be good. Fear is a response that has evolved over millennia to keep us safe. The reason that we cannot access deeper logical paths of thought in a fear response is a feature, not a bug. It allows us to deal with an immediate threat. That split-second reaction might save our lives. 

So. To fear or not to fear? It’s not so simple after all.

And - to further complicate matters - we are told in the Torah that we are supposed to fear  God. The same word is used. Al-tira - do not fear - but, וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ - you shall fear your God. That example is Leviticus 19:14, but it’s only one of many examples. We are told in that same language - the language of yira - that we are supposed to fear God. Why? Well, according to the Book of Proverbs, yirat Adonai - the fear of God - is the beginning of wisdom. 

Fear of God - Yirat Hashem - is somehow qualitatively different to other fear. It is often translated not as ‘fear’ at all, but rather as ‘awe’. Where fear causes us to be blinkered, to see only that which we are afraid of, awe of God does the opposite - it opens. It draws in the context of the entire, amazing universe. It places us in that awesome context. Being in awe of the Divine means accepting that there is something beyond what we are experiencing right now. It keeps us shaken, yes, but in a way that allows us to open and to grow. 

The kind of fear that Sarah feels stops her from being able to truly see Hagar and Ishmael. All she can experience is the fear, and so she has to get rid of the threat. That is the kind of fear that the Divine is warning us against. 

The reminder to have awe of God is, I think, about transforming fear. Fear is neither inherently good nor inherently dangerous. But experiencing awe at the very fact of our existence leads us to see the image of God in one another. To see the whole world as filled with, as bursting with holiness. It leads us to see the potential for growth and change. To make better decisions for ourselves and for the world. And, hopefully, to respond to the call of the Divine.

May we all be better at being afraid. 

Shabbat shalom. 


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