Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Pachad Yitzchak’ — ‘Fear’
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of “Pachad Yitzchak” — “the fear of Isaac” — an illusion to the Akedah (the binding/sacrifice of Isaac). (Bereshit 31:42 and 31:53) The Akedah instills a certain fear, one we experience throughout the reading of the machzor (High Holiday prayer book) as we liturgically journey toward God’s judgment. Pachad Yitzchak connects the fear of standing before God at the High Holidays with the fear engendered as we absorb the escalating political cacophony of the world around us.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon introduces readers to some of the source material on “Pachad Yitzchak” — “Fear of Isaac” — and invites us to understand the relationship between the fear of Isaac, associated with the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), a story traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah, and a different Hebrew word for “fear”— “yirah,” which can also be translated as “awe” or “reverence.” Goldhaber-Gordon explains that the Hebrew name for the High Holidays — Yamim Noraim, r Days of Awe — comes from the word “yirah.” She writes, “Fear-tinged awe that opens the soul is likely to be described as ‘yirah.’ Oppressive fear that shuts one down is likely to be described as ‘pachad.’” She goes on to note one kabbalist’s view that each of the patriarchs was understood to be channeling a different facet of God. For example, Abraham expresses chesed, “kindness.” According to Kabbalah, the counterbalance to chesed is either din, “judgment,” or gevurah, “heroism,” traits that limit chesed’s Isaac is associated with gevurah. The balance of chesed and gevurah is emet, “divine truth.” Emet is Jacob’s trait,” she writes. Why would the man who agreed to sacrifice his son embody kindness? Why would the son who allowed himself to be bound on the altar represent heroism? And why does Jacob, who is known for deceiving his brother, embody truth? What role does fear play in your experience of the High Holidays? Do you experience fear as awe when reciting the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah? How does the liturgical re-enactment of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies — the trembling with fear or awe — transform your experiences of the holiday?
Ebn Leader explores the emotional and spiritual benefits we derive from a fear (“pachad”/yirah”) of God. Ebn shares the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, an early Hasidic master known by the name of his book, the Me’or Einayim, who writes, “God sends us small human fears — regarding loss of life or loved ones, regarding our health, property, or honor — in order to teach us how to fear and love God while trying to avoid getting caught up in the small fears themselves.” He suggests that we must acknowledge and embrace fear as one of the “central practices of Rosh Hashanah… referred to often in the liturgy.” Is there a relationship between society’s diminishing concern about sin and the diminishing fear of God? How would rehabilitating the notion of sin transform our experiences of the High Holidays? Ebn shares a mystical teaching and practice that as God creates the world anew each year, “to the extent that we are willing to embrace the fear of consciously being transparent before God — we can adopt a fresh start and be created anew. In this process, even our most subtle mistakes will shine out and will need to be faced, addressed, and resolved.” How do you understand Rosh Hashanah as a time of transparency? Is it a time to do an “accounting of your soul” in order to begin a new year fresh?
Nigel Savage writes about channeling fear. “We need to be more resolute and less fearful. In the 1930s, Americans faced enormous challenges — the Depression, Nazis, and the assault on Pearl Harbor — with resolution. Today, we need a clear sense of hope and vision — the antidotes to the fear that incapacitates us. It’s not about having no fear at all, but rather about how we operate within the fear we may have to move forward.” How do you channel fear or become immobilized by it? What is the relationship between trust and fear? During the omer, as the Israelites are wandering through the desert, Moshe tells them not to fear the journey, if they can trust and believe in God and God’s miracles.” How does fear embolden us to do our work in the world? In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Time, Pema Chödrön writes, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” How do you channel your fears — especially those on a global scale?
Reflective Questionscan help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
Josh Gressel writes about where fear happens in the brain. As a psychologist, he helps us to approach the High Holidays and to come face-to-face with our immortality. We are faced with abundant challenges, and with the need to craft a response rather than to fold into fear. Gressel writes, “This fear is not existential anxiety — that diffuse and vague feeling that keeps us keyed up without a specific reason — but rather a pure and deep fear felt as we stand naked, helpless, and defenseless before God, just as Yitzchak did when lying prone on the altar before Abraham’s outstretched knife.” In this moment, are we paralyzed, humbled, or emboldened by fear? How do we acknowledge and respond to this state in healthy ways? How do we distinguish between our fears and an overarching anxiety about the year ahead?
In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a wonderful story about Zusya, as told by Martin Buber in his collection Tales of the Hasidim. “‘Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Let me stand in awe of you like your angels, who are penetrated by your awe-inspiring name.’ And God heard his prayer, and God’s name penetrated the heart of Zusya as it does those of the angels. But Zusya crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: ‘Lord, let me love you like Zusya again!’ And God heard him this time also.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, 1947, 246-247) Our commentators reflect on the relationship between fear and love. Writer, artist, and animator Hanan Harchol writes that “fear is, paradoxically, an integral and even necessary part of the process of building a real and meaningful connection. Fear leads to true love.” He goes on to say that “this story is showing us that acknowledging fear is a necessary part of recognizing and gaining a fuller and deeper appreciation and understanding of true, unconditional, and infinite love.” Rabbi Jeremy Gordon shares a story: “God initially wanted to create the world using only love, but God knew that such a world would collapse. The midrash asserts that God then considered creating a world built purely on the basis of judgment, but God knew that such a world couldn’t survive. So, God ‘mixed hot water and cold water,’ and we find ourselves in a world of both love and fear.” Where were you when you experienced penetrating fear? How did you resolve it? How do you understand the relationship between fear and love?