[Sermon] Fear eats the soul

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
25 June 2016
 
For the past few months, Britain has been caught up in the EU referendum campaign. During the debate, campaigners on both sides stirred up our deepest fears: on the ‘Leave’ side, the fear of a continuing and unstoppable tide of migrants from Eastern Europe, if we stayed in the EU; on the ‘Remain’ side, the fear of economic catastrophe, if we left. Although there were those, who appealed to our sense of hope, for both sides, fear of the consequences of what each side considered was the wrong decision, was the principal argument. And now it’s all over, and the electorate has decided: 51.9% have voted to ‘leave’. The pound has plummeted. It seems that fear of immigration has triumphed. Has Great Britain become Little Britain overnight – an island adrift? Certainly, Brighton and Hove, with the only Labour and Green constituencies in the south, has become together with Lewes and Mid-Sussex an island of European consciousness in the south-east outside London. Significantly, 73% of 18 to 25-year-olds voted ‘Remain’1.
 
In my sermon at the end of May, I argued that our decision whether or not to stay in the EU should be determined by our values: the real contest being between the values of inclusion and integration versus the values of exclusion and segregation. Today, the verdict on Britain’s values before us, I would like to explore the issue of fear in greater depth.
 
This week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, which begins at Numbers chapter 13 is all about fear. The Eternal One tells Moses to send twelve men, each one a tribal leader, to reconnoitre the land beyond the Jordan. Ten of the men return after forty days, full of fear and dread. According to their testimony, conceding that the land was, indeed, flowing with milk and honey, with abundant fruit (13:27), it was also a place that ‘devours its inhabitants’ (13:32), and was populated by giants. They imagined that just as these giants made them feel like ‘grasshoppers’ in their own eyes, so they appeared as ‘grasshoppers’ in their eyes (13:32-33). By contrast, two of the men, Joshua and Caleb had a completely different response. They were not afraid and were eager at the prospect of entering the land (14:6-7).
Fear is a very basic emotion; a basic instinct. Like our creaturely cousins, who roam the planet, we are hard-wired to feel fear and to be vigilant. Our sense of fear has been and remains critical to our survival in all sorts of everyday circumstances. We warn children, for example, to stay away from naked flames and to stand back from the cliff edge at Beachy Head…
 
But fear can also be paralysing, or it can propel us to act destructively against ourselves and others. Just think of Omar Mateen, who rampaged through the ‘Pulse’ LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12 with an assault rifle, killing 49 people and critically wounding dozens more2. The investigation is on-going into the possible motives of the killer, but since there is evidence that he had attended the nightclub on a few occasions, we can hazard a guess: extreme homophobia fuelled by homophobic religious teachings, which had also been internalised by an individual terrified by his own gay sexuality3. And then there was Tommy Mair, who murdered Jo Cox in Birstall, West Yorkshire on June 16 as she went about her work as a constituency MP; an individual who gave his name in his first court appearance as ‘death to all traitors and freedom for Britain.4’ Linked to far right extremists, Mair is being treated as a terrorist, who has conducted a political assassination5. And what of his motives? Of course, determined to ‘put Britain first’6, it’s not surprising that filled with hatred Mair targeted the local chief exponent of the ‘Remain’ campaign. But he was also fearful: No doubt, whipped up into hatred by the fear that his Britain was being taken over by Europe and invaded by hosts of ‘foreigners’.
 
We may feel revulsion for these hate-filled destructive people, but we also, albeit to a lesser extent can also become dominated by our fears. Each one of us knows what fear feels like. I certainly know how it feels to feel overwhelmed by fear. When I was in my early 20s and married – I married at 19 – I began to realise I could not hide any longer. I was a lesbian and had to come out. So I left my husband and took a step into the unknown.
 
I was terrified. Up to that point, always radical in my ideas and commitments – socialism, antiracism and feminism – I nevertheless had played it safe on the personal front.
 
One April night in 1979, in the midst of that terrifying odyssey, while living as a volunteer at a kibbutz in the western Galilee a couple of kilometres from the border with Lebanon, I wrote this:
I am dominated / by fear / I try to be brave / and free / but I am entangled / in confusion / and doubt / about my worth / about my ability / to make sense / of my own life / fear / primitive / brutal / relentless / so real / that I can see it / hear it / feel / it’s massive / formless / presence / manipulating / my resolve / fear / is my motive / in everything.
 
That perilous journey was the first of many – culminating in my journey into the rabbinate as an out lesbian, which proved to be another perilous journey, involving five years on probation as a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, with the threat of expulsion at any point, if there was a ‘problem’…
 
I recall towards the end of my last year at Leo Baeck College, as ordination approached, the prospect of the unknown future – yet more hurdles, yet more doors to break down and boundaries to cross – filled me with fear. One morning at the daily service at the end of our prayers, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet sang the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav just when I needed them7:
Kol ha-olam, kulo, gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’phacheid k’lal.
 
All the world, all of it is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is never to be afraid.
I made these words the theme of my ordination address, delivered on July 9, 1989. They became my mantra. But what do we make of the challenge they present to us – today and every day? How can we not be afraid if ‘All the world, all of it, is a very narrow bridge’?
 
Perhaps, because a bridge, however narrow, represents a possibility; the possibility that we can journey across the abyss. A bridge is like a lifeline, summoning us to hold on and keep going, whatever the circumstances, however terrified we feel. Whatever the risks of falling into the abyss, a bridge beckons us to step forward; to take one step after another, after another, in the hope that we will reach the other side.
 
A bridge is also a tangible representation of the courage of the bridge-builders. As I put it in my ordination address:
With very rare exceptions, bridges are not natural phenomena: Before we are able to begin our crossing, the bridge has to be there, it has to be built.
 
And so, a bridge reminds us of those who went before us; of those who managed their fears. And yet, the second phrase of Rabbi Nachman’s wise aphorism seems to present a truly impossible challenge:
Kol ha-olam, kulo, gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’phacheid k’lal.
 
All the world, all of it is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is never to be afraid.
To manage our fears is one thing – but how can we manage ‘never to be afraid’? And if never being afraid is essential, how can there really be any hope for us? I think what Rabbi Nachman was getting at is that it doesn’t matter how fearful we feel, we can ‘never’ be afraid when it comes to how we act. Because ‘all the world, all of it is a very narrow bridge’, and we have no choice but to walk that very narrow bridge, it is ‘essential’ that our actions are not motivated by fear.
 
Fear cannot be allowed to dictate how we live as individuals or as a society. During the past 27 years that I’ve been a rabbi I have found support on my journey from Rabbi Nachman’s wise words. I have also found inspiration in the stories of individuals who faced their fears and stepped out onto narrow bridges. Hans Levy, zichrono livrachah, may his memory be for blessing, our beloved Emeritus President who died on June 14, and whose funeral took place on the day of the EU referendum was one of those outstanding people. Of course, Hans had no choice but to leave all that he knew as a child refugee from Nazi Germany, and step out into the unknown at the age of 11, with his just one year younger brother, Oscar, and leave all he knew behind him – not least his parents.
 
Hans like all the children sent away to save their lives had to take a journey into the unknown. Thinking back to our own childhoods, we can barely imagine what it must have been like. And what was most remarkable about Hans was that he didn’t just survive what turned out to be a two-year journey to England, and then cope with living as a stranger in a strange land. Hans built a life for himself; a good life; he loved and he laughed. Hans was always positive and faced each day with a smile, even in the midst of his loss of his cherished wife, Elfrida in 2003, even in the midst of his illness, which eventually led to his death. And more than that: Hans didn’t just keep himself going. Always thinking of others, Hans always reached out to others in friendship, keeping in touch with those who needed support, responding with openness and warmth and laughter to everyone around him.
 
Just over a week ago, we were reminded of another individual, who stepped out into life and embraced it: The Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, shot and knifed several times, outside the library, where she was due to hold a constituency surgery that afternoon. Many of us may not have heard of Jo Cox before she was killed so brutally. Since her death, we have learnt that she was a passionate campaigner for justice and human rights, who worked for Oxfam in many conflict zones across the globe before she became an MP for her home constituency in West Yorkshire. The testimony of so many people – including the wonderful tributes paid to her by her fellow MPs and in the House of Lords on Monday, when a special session was held in her memory8 – tell us that Jo Cox was a remarkable, dynamic individual; a socialist and a feminist, who was never fazed by anything and rose to every challenge. The words of her husband, Brendan on the day that she was murdered have been quoted frequently because they resonate so powerfully: ‘Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life’.9 But Jo wasn’t just a fighter for justice, she was also an enabler. Entering Parliament in 2015, as chair of the Labour Women’s Network, she also enabled several women to become MPs, encouraging them and supporting them to overcome their fears.10
 
The lives of Hans Levy and Jo Cox remind us that however fearful we feel – particularly, in the wake of the EU Referendum result – it is possible to walk that narrow bridge and to act courageously, affirming life with every step. In 1974, aged 19, I saw a remarkable German film which has always stayed with me: Fear Eats the Soul directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.11 The film centres on the relationship between an elderly white German woman and a Moroccan migrant worker. The original German title, Angst Essen Seele Auf, meaning, literally: ‘Fear Eats Soul Up’, reflects the halting inflections of a recent immigrant struggling with an alien tongue, and the film paints a searing portrait of the vulnerability and marginality of immigrants everywhere. Yes: fear eats up our souls. The only antidote is courage and tenacity: The courage and tenacity of Hans Levy and Jo Cox. The courage and tenacity we are all capable of summoning up – particularly, when we realise we are not alone on that narrow bridge. That’s what I realised that morning in 1989 when Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet sang the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. This is how I put it in my ordination address:
How can I not be afraid if I have to step onto the bridge alone? Because I am not alone: However narrow it may be, a bridge connects two places, two points of departure: Perhaps as I am walking alone on the bridge, I will encounter another lonely traveller emerging from the other direction – coming out to meet me?…
 
We may feel fearful and struggle with the prospect of the unknown, but we are not alone. Hans found meaning in his life after the Sho’ah by participating in community – in particular, in this community – and forging connections with others. Jo Cox had the courage to face any hurdle and turn it into an opportunity because she had a loving family around her and found meaning in her passionate humanitarian values and convictions. Fear eats the soul. May the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and the lives of Hans Levy and Jo Cox inspire us and embolden us to step out every day along the narrow bridge of life. And let us say: Amen.
 
 
1http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum

2 Fifty dead was the original estimate. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36512308

3 Mateen also used a gay app. See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/14/omar-mateen-gay-men-terrorism-pulse-jackd-sexuality However, the FBI maintains that there is no evidence that Omar Mateen was gay – see: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/06/fbi-no-evidence-that-mateen-had-gay-affairs.html

4https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/18/jo-cox-murder-suspect-thomas-mair-told-police-he-was-political-activist

5 See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/jo-cox-dead-britain-first-tommy-mair-who-are-the-far-right-political-group-a7086151.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/jo-cox-dead-thomas-mair-suspect-south-africa-apartheid-a7086426.html

6 It is reported that Mair shouted ‘put Britain first’ when he attacked Jo Cox. See: Note 5.

7 Nachman of Bratslav was born on 4 April 1772 in Medzhybizh, Ukraine and died on 6 October 1810 in Uman, Ukraine. See Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom edited and translated by Aryeh Kaplan (1973). http://www.feldheim.com/rabbi-nachman-s-wisdom.html

8 Monday, 20 June 2016.

9http://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2016/jun/16

10http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/16/jo-cox-global-aid-worker-to-labour-adviser

11 Fassbinder was born in 1945 and died in 1982. For the film, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmOOFPtKn_o Also: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071141/
 
 

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