I think tonight I'm here to give a pep talk. I think we all need a pep talk. I know I do. So this is for me as much as it is for you.
Since I was last standing in this spot on Yom Kippur, much has happened. Besides living through the anniversary of the fire, we've witnessed the Kavanaugh hearings. And we've seen the slow unfolding of the story of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his death.
I'm sorry to breathe both of these painful events into Shabbat. But they are both dwelling in here somewhere, at least for me, and they do not take the day off.
Now, they may not seem connected, these two stories. But there is something that connects them inside my nervous system, in my gut. They both drag me into a deep sense of fear.
Khashoggi, we are learning, was killed after being tortured in the most horrific ways, for the purpose of not only silencing him, but silencing all who dare to resist that oppressive regime. Frankly, I'm sure it's given pause to anyone resisting any oppressive regime.
And the Kavanaugh hearings? They also had the effect of instilling fear and of silencing. They re-raised and reinforced the fears of all women and of anyone who has been victimized or violated, whether their story looks like that particular summer party described by Dr. Blasey-Ford or whether their story looks like a street corner or parking lot or workplace or school. Anyone who has feared for their life or safety, anyone whose safety was taken away, anyone who has tiptoed through a situation to avoid violence or other reprisal – all of that fear, all of that vulnerability, was stirred up by those hearings. We walked away from our TVs and computer screens more frightened than when we sat down. We walked away with the conviction that no one with power would protect us, shelter us, hear us or even admit to believing us.
This will change. It is changing and it will keep changing in this country, in this decade. The power and anger of women has been awakened even more than it already had been. And we have not yet seen the full effect of that anger.
But the inevitability of future change does not necessarily make us feel any less afraid and silenced in the present.
And of course, our fear is what those who abuse power most desire. Making people afraid reaps great rewards. You win elections. You stay in power. You suppress opposition and resistance. We know how fear is used. We know it. And still, here we are, afraid.
And that's where Torah comes in. This week we read Lech Lecha, the portion that describes Avram and Sarai's departure from the Old Country, the portion we delved into so deeply and creatively on Rosh Hashanah this year. And alongside it, we read a haftarah portion from the Book of Isaiah.
Our tradition does not give us reasons why particular haftarot from the various books of prophets were chosen as the companion texts for particular Torah portions. Usually it's easy to discern. A common plot element is typical. Here, though, it's less obvious. The story of Avram and Sarai in this portion takes them from their departure from a familiar homeland into new territory. They travel. They amass wealth. They engage in warfare – mounting a rescue party to free their nephew Lot, who was captured in what came to be called the War of Nine Kings. Avram has a son with Hagar, Sarai's handmaiden. And in the end, he is promised progeny also through Sarai, even though they are both old. He is told to look up at the stars in the heavens and to know that his descendants will be equally countless. And God changes his name to Avraham and hers to Sarah.
Nothing like any of that in Isaiah. No wandering. No children through handmaidens. No main characters at all. It is simply the word of God, coming through the prophet whom we call Deutero-Isaiah – that is, the second prophet named Isaiah. God's word to the people of Israel who have been conquered and are now exiled. Isaiah speaks words of hope to them. He prophesies their return and tries to comfort them.
These two texts seem unrelated. But then you notice a simple, shared phrase in both.
In Torah, just after Avram's small militia liberates Lot from the Mesopotamian thugs, we read that God's word comes to Avram – not audially but, interestingly and synesthetically, in a vision. God says: al tirá Avram. Avram, do not be afraid.
אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ
Do not be afraid. I am a shield to you. (Genesis 15:1)
Note that Avram is told this not before racing into battle against powers much stronger, against armies that came from his birthplace, but rather after. As if Torah understands that we can sometimes buck ourselves up to be brave for the duration of a campaign. But whether we are successful or not successful, the experience births fear that we carry forward with us. After Avram has battled armies and survived to tell about it, God says, al tirá. Don't be afraid. I am your shield. And then God points Avram's attention up to the stars, numerous as the descendants yet to born, reminding Avram of the long game.
So now we turn to Isaiah, and we find the connection. In Isaiah 41:10, God says, al tirá ki imcha ani:
אַל־תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ־אָנִי אַל־תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי־אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף־עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף־תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
"Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be unsettled. For I give you heart and help you and hold you with my right hand of righteousness." (Isaiah 41:10.)
And 4 verses later God says,
כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מַחֲזִיק יְמִינֶךָ הָאֹמֵר לְךָ אַל־תִּירָא אֲנִי עֲזַרְתִּיךָ
"I am Adonai who holds your right hand and says to you: al tirá, do not be afraid, I am your help." (Isaiah 41:13.)
This is the connection, the hyperlink, to the story of Avram. They are tied by al tirá – the instruction not to be afraid. Do not be afraid. I am with you. I am your help. I am your shield. Al tirá.
Our Midrash is interested in what the mechanics of God saying al tirá are. In a certain way, the sages of antiquity, I think, resisted the idea of God simply telling people what to feel. Be afraid. Don't be afraid.
In Breishit Rabbah, the midrashic commentary on Genesis, the sages quote our bit of Isaiah – "do not be afraid; do not be unsettled; for I give you heart and help you" and they say that in a moment of great unsettling, the Holy One issues forth two angels – one on the right and one on the left, to hold the disconcerted person by the elbows to keep them from falling. In other words, the al tirá is not an instruction but a conjuring of Divine support. The moment of al tirá manifests the malakhim. (Bereshit Rabbah 44:3.)
The Hungarian rebbe known as the Yismach Moshe was more specific about those angels. He identified them as the archangels Michael and Gavriel, two angels who are not nearly as gendered as their names, with Michael at the right hand providing courage and Gavriel at the left elbow providing support. (Yismach Moshe, Lech Lecha 29:1.) These are not fiery angels filling humans with dread. These are human-scale angels, flanking us and supporting us like physical therapists, or like we hope our children will someday do for us in our old age. This is an angelic intervention that is quiet and intimate. The angels don't speak to you or rally you or lead you. They escort and support you.
For some of us, this might be enough to give us good heart. To feel that in the aftermath of battles lost and battles won, we have angels at our sides. For those of us for whom such imagery works, just breathing in that image right now might be of help, might assuage our fear.
But maybe this imagery does not work. Maybe it feels too folksy and fanciful; as if in the wake of the Kavanaugh fiasco, the next logical step is calling forth the pixies and fairies. (Which might not be unreasonable.) But is there a non-angelic reading?
In the 12th Century, Moses Maimonides, whom we call Rambam, rejected the idea of angels as personalities, as independent beings, and instead saw them sometimes as natural forces, and at other times as visions. For him, it is God's providence, God's presence that is with you in such moments.
For Rambam, looking at this bit of Isaiah, the interesting question was what causes fear to begin with? He felt that those who work to obtain a knowledge of God and who bring that knowledge into their hearts, will not be afraid. But when we feel separated, remote, from the Divine, that is when we are unsettled and frightened. So his reading of Isaiah is as a reminder to the people that when they draw the Divine into themselves, when they remember the Divine within themselves, they will not feel afraid. (Guide for the Perplexed, on Isaiah 41:10.) Al tirá – do not be afraid, I am with you – no, better, I am in you.
Maybe Maimonides is onto something here. That we are afraid when we forget our own strength. When we forget the Divine that courses through us. When we are separated from our own powerful Divinity. That is when we are in danger of being overcome by fear.
So the task for us, the practice, is to feel the Divine pumping through us. To feel not necessarily angels at our elbows, but the strength of our own arms. To reject the disempowerment that those in power want to thrust on us.
This is not a solution to the problems we face today or to the challenges ahead. It is not comfort for the losses we have suffered or the grief that we carry. But it is a posture with which, within which, to move forward. To move into the work ahead with a certainty of our power, despite the momentary gains and losses.
So that is the pep talk. Al tirá. Do not fear. Al tirá, Avram is told. Al tirá, the Children of Israel are told. Al tirá, we are told – not because we are not in danger. But al tirá, do not fear, despite the danger.
Know your strength. Know your power. Feel it in you and around you. Do not let anyone separate you from it. Feel the strength and help of the angels at your side, either the ones in your vision or the ones in this room. And then, without fear, lift your eyes to the stars and see the light of the future we will yet bring about. Al tirá.