by Judy Shanks
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Q. Dear Rabbi,
In the face of the disaster on September 11, and because of all the events which have followed, I find myself living in a state of fear. I find it impossible to believe that God will protect me and my loved ones from those who would want to harm us. How can I go about my normal life when I no longer feel secure? What does Judaism say about how to live a normal, productive life in the face of living, perhaps long-term, under siege?
A. Dear Friend,
If you have spoken of your fears to friends and family members, you know that you are not alone. In the days and months following the horrific attacks on our country, our military response, and the continuing heightened alert to danger from bioterrorism, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are in a state of persistent anxiety and fear. Many have found a degree of solace and a lessening of fear by talking with others who share their worries. There is comfort in companionship.
Jewish tradition has much to say about our present circumstance. As Jews, we are no strangers to living in times of terror and observing communal mourning following mass destruction. Our tradition encourages us to question God, even as we cling to faith and choose life. In the Book of Psalms, especially, we hear our ancestors ask questions that could be ours; they plead with God for help in their distress, for comfort in their sorrow: "How long? Eternal One, will you forget me forever? How long will You hide your face from me? How long shall my soul suffer? Must my heart sorrow every day? How long will my enemy exalt over me? Look at me and answer me, Eternal My God!" (Psalm 13).
As if in answer to these timeless questions, the liturgy of our prayer book reminds us that renewal and redemption have also been part of our historical experience as Jews: "Eternal is Your might, Holy One, all life is Your gift, great is Your power to save... Baruch atah Adonai, m'chayeh hakol --We praise You God, who brings life where there was death." "It is You, Eternal One, who humbles the proud and raises up the lowly, who frees the captive and redeems the oppressed. Baruch atah Adonai, ga'al Yisrael--We praise You God, Redeemer of Israel." These fixed prayers--which have carried our ancestors through centuries of traversing the depths and heights of human experience--continue to guide us in recognizing and appreciating, even in troubled times, the wonder of creation, the wisdom of Torah, the hope for lasting and universal peace.
To break through your current cycle of worry and dread, try now to make synagogue worship a regular part of your weekly routine. In a beautiful and sacred place, you will be surrounded by others also seeking the spiritual uplift provided by familiar prayers, soaring music, and meditative silences. By your presence, you will strengthen your community and your community will strengthen you.
The key is to let your angst drive you not to despair but to positive change in your life. Resolve to make Shabbat what it should be: a rest from work and worry, a twenty-four-hour retreat from the news media. Turn off the TV, cell phone, and computer; enter instead into the spiritual balm of community, prayer, study, good food, and celebration with family and friends. Let Shabbat keep you centered and sheltered; let it begin to open for you the possibility of faith in an eternal God who understands our fears and has endless patience with our human doubts.
As for your fears regarding physical security, it is unfortunately true that life is fragile. Therefore, our tradition teaches us to treasure each of our days, filling every moment with meaning and purpose--with gratitude, compassion, and good deeds that repair the world's broken places. Try beginning each day with the traditional prayer said upon awakening: "Modeh ani.... I am grateful to You, Sovereign God of lasting faithfulness, for returning my soul to me." In these first seconds of consciousness, bask in your gratitude for life, this day's life, a day that can be filled with meaningful actions and significant relationships.
Perhaps these words from Gates of Prayer (CCAR Press) will inspire you, as they do me, to use prayer and action to banish worry and despair: "Eternal God, we face the morrow with hope made stronger by the vision of Your sovereignty, a world where poverty and war are banished, where injustice and hate are gone. Teach us more and more to share the pain of others, to heed Your call for justice, to pursue the blessing of peace. Help us, O God, to gain victory over evil, to bring nearer the day when all the world shall be one."
Judy Shanks, HUC-JIR class of 1984, is rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA
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