Complete Immobilization

scream.jpg“Dancing is the complete immobilization.”
– The 2000 Year Old Man

“These are people who want to come and kill your families.”
– President Bush to Matt Lauer on The Today Show, (September 12, 2006)

“The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear.”
– Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

The 2000 Year Old Man (aka Mel Brooks) claims that most of our cultural rituals were originally created out of fear. Singing, for instance, evolved from the need to invent louder and louder ways of crying for help. The handshake was created to keep the other guy’s hand immobile, lest he was holding a sharp stick that he might poke in your eye. Dancing, he explained, was “the complete immobilization” of your potential enemy. (“Both hands, and you keep the feet busy so he can’t kick you!”)

Maybe he’s on to something. After all, fear has become such a complete aspect of our post-9/11 national culture, you might say we are fast approaching something resembling “complete immobilization.” If there was ever any doubt, it can now be officially stated: we Americans are a profoundly fearful people.

With the November 2006 elections almost upon us, some pundits are claiming that the politics of fear has finally outlived its usefulness. Whether or not this is true, it must also be admitted that fear per se is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, our fear reflex has served us well during the course of our evolution as a species. It’s just that in this complex 21st century world, it’s so hard to know which of our fears are irrational and which are truly justified.

Here’s a paradigm from Jewish tradition that might be instructive:

In Hebrew there are two oft-used words for fear: “pachad” and “yirah.” I like to define pachad (often translated as “dread”) as our fear of the Boogie Man – those dark irrational fears that awaken us suddenly at four in the morning. Pachad might also be understood as our fear of The Other – the fear of that which we do not understand and that which we do not wish to understand.

Yirah, on the other hand, is often translated as “awe.” To be in awe, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, is to experience “radical amazement.” To stand in wonder before a a reality that far transcends our knowledge or understanding. Awe may sometimes be a fearful experience, but yirah cannot be defined exclusively by fear. It is defined equally by our humility, our respect, our acceptance of the ultimate limits of our power in the world. When we learn to stand in awe, we use our fear as a springboard to embracing a truth much greater than ourselves.

When the great Hasidic master, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said “the main thing is not to fear,” he was recognizing both the reality and the paralyzing nature of pachad. Yes, it is natural and even necessary to have fears – but we must beware lest we allow our fears to consume us.

To put it simply, pachad is the fear that reflects our darkest selves, and yirah is the fear that reveals our deepest humanity. And in so many ways, it seems to me, recognizing the difference between the two will be key to crossing the “narrow bridge” of our post-9/11 world.

2 thoughts on “Complete Immobilization

  1. Avraham Jehudah

    Brant, Mazel Tov on the new blog… I look forward to reading your insights and the discussions that emerge.

    I want to share some insights on the word pachad “(often translated as “dread”) as our fear of the Boogie Man – those dark irrational fears that awaken us suddenly at four in the morning. Pachad might also be understood as our fear of The Other – the fear of that which we do not understand and that which we do not wish to understand.”

    What do we do with them? How do we effectivly live with them? Do we hide them? run from them? or face them and integrate them? Grow from them.

    The Daughters of Tzelofochad provide some insight. The story of the women wanting their proper place at the table takes on a shift when we read this as the Daughters of Fear (pachad) and Shadow (tzel). If we look at the root of each of the daughter’s names (Machlah, Noah, Haglah, Milchah and Tirzah) we find words that have multiple meanings, of both our darker and our lighter impulses and tendancies. So from our fears, our pachad, we can look into our shadows and discover that there is something positive even in the darkness to learn about ourselves and others. I think there is more than pachad being bad fear and Yirah being good Awe, but that even in the dark, freightening, misunderstood pachad, we can learn and see ourselves as well as the other. If we run and hide we do not transform … only when we face our demons. Not always easy to do and incorporate into real life.

  2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

    Thanks, Avraham Yehudah for your comment. I appreciate your suggestion that one can learn important things about oneself by facing one’s “pachad side,” but I also think that this mytho-poetic Jungian emphasis on looking into the shadow is often dangerously overstated. It might work well for mystics and shamans but I don’t think it serves the body politic particularly well. Personally, I think the best thing we can do with our irrational fears is to face them, yes, but ultimately to face them DOWN and say in no uncertain terms that we refuse to be goverened by them.

    Anyone else want to weigh in?

    Thanks again, Avraham,
    Rabbi Brant Rosen


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