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From Fear to Joy

Fear is important. Let’s be honest: being afraid motivates. I can move surprisingly fast when I think
someone I love is in trouble. I avoid walking in certain areas with large frightening dogs. There are times
with family and friends when I am afraid of hurting someone and I act out of worry and anxiety. Fear
matters and motivates.

Yet, fear is only a tool to recognize what matters to me. I am afraid of that dog because I dislike pain.
The prospect of being bitten or hurt reminds me that I care about my body being whole and well.
Similarly, I am afraid to hurt or disappoint certain people because I care about them and their opinion of
me. I can notice the feeling which arises and then decide what to do. Getting away from the dog is a
good idea. Overreacting to someone I am worried may be problematic.

For this reason, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we add to our praise of God’s holiness an
additional three paragraphs, the first of which tells us that God gave us fear. We start the Jewish year
with holidays that remind us of our mortality and invite us into a practice of humility, that challenges us
to grow and become more wholly blessings.

The next of these three paragraphs tells us that God also grants us honor and dignity. Yes, God
implanted a fear response to help us recognize that which we care about and to preserve ourselves, but
God also gave us honor and hope. We are capable of making choices, of refocusing our fear in ways that
help us grow and change. In other words, fear is just the beginning. God also offers us a promise of a
much better world.

What emerges from that dignity and hope is the joy expressed in the third and final paragraph. The
liturgy says, “those who wait for You will be heard.” Dignity means other people listen to us with
respect. It means that those who currently are voiceless will discover they can speak. Salvation, a word
we seldom use in Jewish settings, means a flowering of righteousness, of hope, of human dignity, that
will inspire great joy.

Sukkot follows Yom Kippur to remind us to give ourselves permission to feel joy. We start Yom Kippur
with Kol Nidre, giving permission to everyone who has failed in the last year to pray with the
community. I feel we ought to begin Sukkot with a kind of Kol Simchah, permission for everyone to feel
joy. Even if you have lost a loved one in the last year, you are allowed to feel joy. Even if you have lost
your job, or struggle with issues of health or infertility, permission is granted to feel joy. Even if you
always worry that it’s not enough, or that bad things may follow, God grants us all permission, even a
commandment, to feel joy.

I know that I sometimes resist joy. I worry that it will blind me to suffering or keep me away from work
that needs to be done. That is an illusion. Joy is an engine that enables us to celebrate and then to
silence all evil. Wickedness disappears like smoke, as the liturgy says, because we find the courage to
rejoice. From hope comes joy and from joy the heavenly power to change ourselves and for that change
to radiate out so that all wickedness comes to an end.

In these few days leading up to Sukkot, I wish that all your fears and worries will give way to true and
lasting joy. And from that joy, you will uncover healing and boundless strength.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784