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 370 (photo credit: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons)
Chichen Itza 370
(photo credit: 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 world.
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 Friday.
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 hoopla.
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.
THE 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 journey.
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 request.
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.
While 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 reality.
Last week, I finally came face-to-face with one of my greatest fears.
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.
We 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 the vehicles.
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 end.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.