וְרָדַף אֹתָם קוֹל עָלֶה נִדָּף… וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ־בְּאָחִיו כְּמִפְּנֵי־חֶרֶב וְרֹדֵף אָיִן
V’radaf otam kol aleh nidaf … V’khashlu ish b’akhiv k’mipnei kherev v’rodeif ayin …
The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight … even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword … (Leviticus 26:36–37).
Last week’s portion, Behar, laid out the need for the earth to receive a sabbatical year every seventh year and our responsibility to let the land rest. Bekhukotai, the final chapters of the book of Leviticus, now describes the consequences of these directives. If we give the land its sabbaths, we will live in peace and harmony. If we deny the earth its sabbaths, the outcome will be dire. In terrifying detail, Bekhukotai describes a cascade of misfortune that will befall those who exploit the land without pause. The land will reject us; it will literally spit us out. We will become homeless and hounded. We will lose our dignity and self-respect. As our exile reaches its nadir, we will become so debased that we will be consumed by anxiety and fear: “The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight … ”
As always, the Torah then offers a message of hope. There will ultimately be return and renewal, another chance for redemption. But the vivid language of fear is what stays with the reader; “even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword.”
Bekhukotai, along with its companion portion Behar, offer eerily prescient warnings for our own era of the potentially devastating consequences if humanity is unable to live in sustainable balance with our planet. Will the earth spit us out until “it makes up for the Sabbath years that were denied it”? (Leviticus 26:34). What manner of terrifying consequences are we facing if we fail to find a sustainable rhythm of rest to balance our drive for attainment and consumption?
These questions haunt me as I reflect on the Torah’s narrative. But the teaching I want to pursue at this moment is less about our collective fate then about our individual psyches as we each confront the unknown horizon. The Torah describes our very lowest condition as one in which we are driven by fear and anxiety. That is, even more debilitating than being actually terrorized is the state in which we perpetually live in fear, permanently adrenalized, unable to distinguish a real threat from the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind. In this condition, we are unable to manifest that most sublime and central aspect of being a person: the ability to remain aware of our surroundings, assess what our next action might be and then act with volition. To be reduced to anxiety-driven, fight-or-flight reactivity, unable to evaluate what might actually be going on around us disables our greatest human gift — the ability to think, decide and act.
Some of you may be familiar with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810) that we sing in my congregation every year at Rosh Hashanah:
כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוֹ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לֹא לְפַחֵד כְּלַל
Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’fakheid klal
“The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
The message is noble and inspiring. The melody was composed in Israel by Rabbi Baruch Chait during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. If there was ever a moment that called for Jews to cross that narrow bridge fearlessly, it was at that terrifying moment when Israel’s life hung in the balance.
Yet many have pointed out that the instruction to “not fear at all” is unrealistic. Truly, courage is the ability to act despite one’s fears. When standing on the cusp of important decisions, even decisions that are not life-threatening, who is not afraid? Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” So maybe Reb Nachman’s instruction needs to be more nuanced.
And, in fact, Reb Nachman’s original statement is more nuanced. Baruch Chait created an eminently singable lyric, but as I learned from Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, he did so by simplifying Reb Nachman’s original words. Reb Nachman taught:
וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיך לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד מְאֹד וְהַכְּלָל וְהָעִקָּר שֶׁלּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל
V’da, she’ha’adam tzarikh la’avor al gesher tzar me’od me’od, v’ha’klal v’ha’ikar — she’lo yitpakheid klal.
And know, that a human being must cross over a very, very narrow bridge, and it is critically important that he not fill himself with fear (Likutei Tinyana 48, italics mine).
Ah, the difference a verb construct can make! לְפַחֵד L’fakhed means “to fear”; לְהִתְפַּחֵד l’hitpakhed means “to cause oneself to fear.” Reb Nachman was not telling us not to fear. Reb Nachman was telling us that despite life being full of potential dangers, don’t freak yourself out! Indeed, life is challenging enough without us working ourselves into a lather of anxiety about what might happen next. Filling oneself with fear does not help; it actually makes us less able to navigate the narrow bridge. The challenge we all face is to remain aware of our anxieties, but not allow them to rule us. We must work on distinguishing between external risks and internal anxieties. Fear makes us rigid. Balancing across the narrow bridge of life requires supple steps. There is no guarantee that we will not fall. There are no guarantees! But rigidity inevitably makes us less able to make the subtle shifts of weight and direction that allow us to remain upright as we traverse the tightrope of our lives.
Indeed, at the beginning of Bekhukotai, as God describes the blessings that will accrue to us if we live in balance with the land, God says “I, YHVH, am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke so that you could walk erect” (Leviticus 26:13). I see this erect posture, this liberation from the oppressive terror of slavery, as the direct contrast to the debased condition in which we will once again find ourselves if we lose our balance and succumb to fear, falling over one another in flight even though no one pursues us. True freedom includes the inner capacity to distinguish between real and imagined dangers; rather than cower or flee or lash out indiscriminately, we need to be able to assess our fears and walk upright on our paths.
We move on now to סֵפֵר בְּמִדְבָּר Sefer Bamidbar, the book of Numbers. If only the Children of Israel were indeed ready to walk upright, instead of constantly being bowed and driven by their fears. But alas, these former slaves have many painful lessons ahead of them as they make their circuitous way from fear to faith.