How to Tame Your Fear in Elul
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
An interview with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks as the “2000 Year Old Man”:
Reiner: …What was the means of transportation then?
Brooks: Mostly fear.
Reiner: Fear transported you?
Brooks: Fear, yes. An animal would growl — you would go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion.
Today, we have many other modes of transportation, but fear still has a way of propelling us. No matter how far we try to run or hide from it, fear has a way of catching up with us. Only when we recognize its grip can begin to tame it.
Fear has many faces. My six-year-old is morbidly afraid of E.T. Yes, the cute 80’s era Spielberg movie star puppet. She only saw the movie once, many years ago, but the image of E.T. hiding in the closet with stuffed animals has been a problem ever since. It doesn’t help that her older brothers download photos of the adorable alien for her to stumble upon as a practical joke. Brothers are like that. To be fair, they have their own fears to grapple with. Who doesn’t? I was a horror film enthusiast growing up. To this day, hockey masks make me uneasy.
Current events have provided us with a smorgasbord of widespread fright, stoked by the headlines and social media. Remember Skokie, Illinois? When I was a kid, that event was taught as the hallmark case of free speech in America. Now can see that history really does repeat itself. The malignant rhetoric in our society has a way of seeping in to the subconscious. I would take reruns of “Freddy” any day over the images of Charlottesville holding me hostage.
So, what do we do to prevent ourselves from getting swept up in panic? How do we remain level-headed and uphold the values of civil society when the world seems to be toppling around us? There is a beautiful Hassidic term for that: Hishtavut, a reflexive idiom that refers to “equanimity”. I love when Buddhism and Judaism speak the same language. Spiritual truths always find their way into shared religious discourse. Certainly, we need to continue to be aware, vigilant and protective, but it is also incumbent upon us to employ the spiritual tools that are available to us. When we feel out of control, it is critical to regain moral and spiritual centeredness. Easier said than done, but not impossible.
This week in the Jewish calendar, we begin the new month of Elul. Every new month is an opportunity for renewal and resolve – but the power of Elul is distinct. In Elul, we are directed to awaken ourselves to the spiritual work of self-mastery (another cross-religious ideal). We take an account of our thoughts and deeds (Cheshbon Hanefesh). Elul marks the time when we begin the spiritual groundwork for the New Year, right around the corner. The Zodiac sign for Elul is Virgo, the virgin, connoting a clean slate. The sign for Tishrei, one month later, is Libra, signified by the scales of balance – two vivid visuals to remind us of the purpose of our spiritual work.
Throughout Elul, we employ two powerful tools to help us navigate the process of balancing and self-refinement: 1. the sounding of the Shofar and 2. the recitation of Psalm 27. Each of these tools holds its own potential for transformation. The Shofar is the more obvious one. The clarion call is prescribed to “wake us up” to the work of repentance, recovery, and return. Many people show up on Rosh Hashanah morning, eager to hear the call and feel the resonance of the Shofar’s vibration. Indeed, there is often a palpable feeling of anticipation and appreciation of the Shofar service, felt even more strongly when standing together as a community.
But did you know that we sound the Shofar every day of Elul? The Shofar reminds us every morning to engage in the hard work of Teshuvah – to make a visceral shift toward claiming our better selves, toward owning greater compassion and forgiveness. The Shofar initiates a psychological and spiritual turning. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly and incrementally, with each blast, with each space in between the blasts, we are invited into a process of awakening.
The Shofar is the audible tether that binds us to a sense of fearlessness to be who we are in the best sense. In the Bible, the Shofar signaled the community to war. It is also a symbol of the ram that Abraham slaughtered in place of his son. It symbolizes the power of timeless faith and courage.
The daily recitation of Psalm 27 serves a more intellectual function; it is the Scriptural antidote to fear. The opening words:
“L’David – To David, Adonai is my light and my help. Who shall I fear?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I dread?”
When evil people assail me to devour my flesh,
my enemies and those who besiege me,
it is they who stumble and fall.
Should an armed camp be arrayed against me,
my heart would show no fear. (Psalm 27:1-3)
Through the Spirit’s eye, we need not be afraid. Our enemies have no power over us. As we read this Psalm, our fears dissolve into faith and fortitude. The Psalm reminds us that strength builds from within. It is developed over time through a steady course of action and thought. Courage emerges from the sense of the constancy that God has our back. A cross reference can be made to the more well-known Psalm 23:4: “…I will fear no evil for You are with me.” The Divine light illumines our path to help us determine our next step.
We read Psalm 27 throughout the month of Elul and beyond through the Fall holidays, as a spiritual practice to help us shift our perspective. When we read these words, we are reminded that through our own light – expressed through our positive thought, speech, and actions, we experience God’s light. That light within us is stronger than torches in the night. It is stronger than the LED glow of hate speech.
My blessing for us this Elul, is that we take the words of the Psalmist to heart and confront our fears with the light of faith. Unlike the 2000 Year Old Man, we have nowhere to run. So, we might as well do the hard work. I pray that we experience the Shofar as a wake up call to rise above the fray. Allowing the fear to get the best of us doesn’t help anyone. Instead, let’s confront it with equanimity and spiritual illumination, uniting us, people of all faiths, on the path of healing and transformation.