“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.