Choosing Courage

Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod. V’haikar lo lifached klal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to fear.

Sung in summer camp or at youth group retreats, these words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav are well known. But let me point out something not so obvious. The lyrics says, “The most important thing is not to be afraid at all.” Such an attitude is requires great faith. But those are not Rebbe Nachman’s original words.

Instead, he taught, “v’haikar lo l’hitpached.” L’hitpached is a reflexive verb meaning, “do not cause yourself to be afraid.”

What does that mean? Rabbi Marc Margolis, one of my teachers from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality explains: “For Nachman, courage is not about denying or repressing fear. Rather, the fundamental principle of courage is choosing not to frighten ourselves beyond the fear we already experience. Fear is unavoidable, perhaps even required. Courage involves moving forward despite our fear, and not exacerbating our anxieties.

Fear, Rabbi Margolis reminds us, is unavoidable. There are times and circumstances in which fear is real, even important. But Rabbi Nachman cautions, do not allow yourself to be over afraid. Do not fear more than necessary. 

In Hebrew, the word for courage is ometz. Musar students may know the expression, “ometz lev, strong-hearted.” We are not expected to be fearless but to grow in courage. To demonstrate courage is to act in a way not determined by fear. It is doing what is right even in the face of challenging emotions.

As Jews, we know a thing or two about facing fear, to standing up to bullies, to standing proud, and standing strong. Thrown into a fiery furnace by the wicked Nimrod, Abraham escaped unscathed. Shifra and Pua defied Pharoah’s orders to kill all the Jewish boys and delivered hope to an oppressed people. Recognizing that he must forge ahead, Nachshon waded into the waters of the Sea and led the people to the shores of safety. With bravery, Esther stood up to Haman and helped the Jews mount a defense of her people by enlisting the support of the government, King Achashverosh. And on and on. From biblical days to modern times, we have faced threats but didn’t stop living as Jews in the face of fear. 

How can we cultivate courage? First, let me remind you of the last line of the prayer we have been reciting since the beginning of Elul. The last of Psalm 27, the Psalm for these High Holy Days is “chazek v’ametz libecha be strong and take courage.” 

Notice that the Psalmist says, “be strong.” Being courageous is no substitute for actual strength. We are not fools. As Jews, we know there are threats out there. We must be prepared. This is not something new. It is something we have lived with our entire history. At Beth El and in the Twin Cities Jewish community, we have taken threats seriously and responded wisely by strengthening and securing our community.

The JCRC, local, state, and federal officials immediately jumped into action with their full resources to ensure our safety. You can trust and rely on their efforts. I want you to know as well that I got a call from Governor Walz who condemned this threat and committed to providing the necessary resources to make us secure. 

All of that is to say, we are prepared. We have sophisticated systems in place to respond and a large network of people standing with us. And we are not alone. We received words of support from rabbis, Jewish community leaders and other faith leaders from across the city. 

“Chazak. Be strong.” That’s the equipment, the procedures, the network, the allies.

“V’ametz libekha. Be courageous.” This is an inner quality we are to grow. We strive to be strong-hearted, resilient, firm in our resolve and our belief, strong in our faith. It’s the Maccabees “Not by might and not by power but by spirit.” Each of us has the innate ability to draw forth courage. For it is “ometz libekha,” courage planted in each of our hearts by God. 

Chaverim, we crossed into the New Year with joy and hope, and already we see a narrow bridge stretching out before us. But these Yamim Noraim are not meant to be Days of Fear but Days of Awe. And I for one am singing Rebbe Nachman’s original lyrics: “v’haikr lo lihitpached klal.” And I invite you to join me. 

Yes, there are lots of scary things out there. To be sure we must be diligent – but understanding that necessary precautions are in place – not more worried than necessary. We are strong. Let us be courageous. For then we will know the words of the Torah to be true: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear. Do not dread. For God marches with you. God will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Rabbi Alexander Davis is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue. This is the sermon he delivered for Shabbat following the closure of Beth El due to a violent threat made to the synagogue.