In Plain Language: Facing our fears
THE MAYANS, whose own civilization came to an ignominious end long ago at the hands of a decidedly noncosmic phenomenon – they were massacred by the plundering Spaniards – would have chuckled to see the tens of thousands of curious tourists who descended on Chichen Itza and the Kukulkan Pyramid.
Chichen Itza Photo: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons
Oh, Maya! Let’s all sit back and let out a huge sigh of relief; the world has
not ended. December 21 has come and gone and, as far as I can tell from the
small window in my computer room, the Earth is still spinning. Here in Israel,
horns are still honking, cars are still triple-parking on our main street, and
perfect strangers are still asking me what I paid for my house. So I know that
life is continuing as normal – if one can use that term in this part of the
The wild predictions of all the self-proclaimed experts of Mayan
hieroglyphics, all the New Age dreamers and doomsday theorists, have, once
again, proven premature.
The supposed end of the Mayan calendar – which
began more than 5,000 years ago – has come and gone with nary a rip in the
earth’s atmosphere or a rogue asteroid obliterating a continent or two. The
Mayans, whose own civilization came to an ignominious end long ago at the hands
of a decidedly non-cosmic phenomenon – they were massacred by the plundering
Spaniards – would have chuckled to see the tens of thousands of curious tourists
who descended on Chichen Itza and the Kukulkan (emphasis on “kuku”) Pyramid last
As it became clear that the planet was going to survive, the
curious and the clueless (many of whom, my wife suggests, came from Michigan, as
they seemed to be card-carrying Mishiganers) began to celebrate their good
fortune – much to the gleeful satisfaction of the local Mexican government,
which played this story to the hilt and cashed in big time on all the
I was reminded of the famous cartoon showing an elderly, bearded
man standing on a street corner, holding a sign that reads, “The World Will End
In _____ Days,” with numerous numbers written, and then crossed out.
TALMUD long ago expressed its sentiments about persistent prognosticators when
it boldly proclaimed, “To anyone who goes around predicting the date when the
Messiah will come, may his bones rot!” It seems that we humans have an obsessive
desire to know when our end is coming, and – doomsday predictions
notwithstanding – there is a worthwhile and redeeming side to this
preoccupation, particularly as it concerns our own personal
Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, the patriarch Jacob makes
a rather bizarre request of the Almighty.
According to the Sages, he
pleads that people should become ill prior to their deaths, as opposed to
spontaneously sneezing the life out of themselves without any advance warning,
which was then the case. Jacob argues that it is important that people be
granted the opportunity to tie up the loose ends in their lives, to make amends,
to give a final charge to their families, and to gain a sense of closure before
they depart for Paradise.
And God benevolently grants his
I suspect there is another dynamic at work here as well, on both
an individual and a global level: the imperative to face our fears.
there are many things that tend to frighten us – the well-being of our children,
the security of our state, how we will pay the bills at the end of the month –
nothing is as foreboding as death. When it comes to our own mortality, or the
death of a loved one, we need all the courage we can possibly gather to
contemplate its meaning, and to shape our lives in reaction to that
Last week, I finally came face-to-face with one of my greatest
Ten years after our beloved son fell in battle, I decided that I
wanted to stand in the exact spot where he was killed, to see the last things he
saw before he died, to connect with his neshama (soul) at the exact juncture
where it left this world for a better place.
This was, to put it mildly,
not a simple thing to arrange, as Ari fell in the city of Nablus, just one block
from its infamous Casbah.
Nablus, or Shechem, is not only one of the
oldest cities in history – it dates back more than 4,000 years – it also has a
unique Jewish provenance.
The city is a dramatic combination of the holy
and the profane. It is the first place that God appeared to Abraham, our
founding father, promising him that the Land of Israel would be given to his
descendants in perpetuity.
It was the place where Jacob’s daughter Dinah
was kidnapped and raped by the local prince, leading to the massacre of the town
and Dinah’s rescue at the hands of Simeon and Levi. Following the Exodus, Joshua
assembled the Israelites in Shechem and encouraged them to reaffirm their
adherence to the Torah; the city would later become the first capital of the
Kingdom of Israel.
It also served as one of the Cities of Refuge
mentioned in the Torah, a place that housed involuntary manslaughterers fleeing
from the avenging next-of-kin.
That rather dubious distinction still
permeates Shechem, as it remains a hotbed of violence and terrorism where
outrages against Israel’s citizens are constantly being planned and launched.
Indeed, just one day after our visit there, a riot broke out against IDF troops,
and several soldiers and Shechemites were wounded.
THE ARMY agreed to
take us into Shechem, under heavy security. In the dead of night, we donned flak
jackets and helmets, and climbed into armored vehicles for the trip.
first stopped at the ancient tomb of Joseph near the entrance to the city, which
lies in the shadow of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Technically the tomb is open
to Jewish worshipers. But in actuality it is only accessible once a month, when
the IDF allows a certain number of Jews to enter for a brief period, under heavy
guard. On this night, 24 busloads of Israelis from around the country streamed
into the site, all in the wee hours of the morning. There we prayed and danced
and sang, just as Ari had done two weeks before he was killed, when he was one
of the soldiers guarding the tomb on just such a night.
Then we continued
on, deeper into Shechem. The Palestinian “police” had been told to stay inside,
confined to their stations, so as to avoid any confrontation with our group.
When we arrived at the actual place where the shooting had occurred, the
soldiers formed a protective circle around us, guns at the ready. We exited the
vehicle and we stood there, transported back to that awful moment, transfixed by
the enormity of it all, letting the scene wash over us. A light rain started to
fall, and it mixed with our tears. I silently uttered the blessing said at
tragic times – Baruch dayan ha’emet, Blessed is God, the True Judge – and then,
after a few minutes, we took one more look around us, and we climbed back into
I vowed that I would return to Shechem someday, when it
once again became a proud Jewish city.
WE ALL live with certain elemental
fears. Some of these fears are of the friendly variety, and they protect us,
providing a kind of emotional shield that prevents us from driving too fast, or
coming too close to the edge of a cliff, or swimming in shark-infested waters.
But other fears are unhealthy, and they hold us back from being all we can be.
If we are scared to get closer to the Almighty, or to take new initiatives on
roads less traveled; if we shrink from our national destiny to forge a vibrant
nation in this new/old land; if we refrain from perfecting our relationships
with family and friends from whom we have become estranged; if we doubt our own
ability to excel, then fear becomes our greatest enemy.
There is no
greater feeling of relief and self-fulfillment than confronting a fear we have
dreaded, locked away or avoided, and overcoming it. Then we know that there are
no impediments or roadblocks on our journey forward to a better tomorrow. The
trick is to muster up the will and to do it – before the world comes to an
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.