BY SHAYNA GOLDBERG
The established Jewish calendar ensures that Parashat Nitzavim is usually read on the last Shabbat of the year, just before Rosh Hashanah (Shulchan Aruch 428:4). As we approach the Day of Judgment, we read: “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring” (Devarim 30:19).
What does it mean to choose life?
Choosing life is not a one-time decision of choosing option A over option B. Rather, it means realizing that in any situation, there are always choices to be made. It means thinking about what we believe is right and how to move forward in that direction. It entails taking active responsibility for our responses and for each decision we make.
Taking responsibility for our choices means stopping to think about what we ultimately want. It often means holding back and exhibiting self-control in order to achieve goals that are more important and ultimately more worthwhile and fulfilling for us. It requires self-awareness and reflection. It can mean demanding more from ourselves, overcoming our fears and making courageous decisions.
Given that fear so often prevents us from making the right choices, why, throughout the Yamim Noraim tefillot, do we repeatedly ask Hashem, וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אֱ-לקֵינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ, “to cast His fear over all His works and His dread upon all that He has created”?
In On Repentance, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses this question:
A very eminent psychiatrist once said to me: ‘Had I the authority to do so, I would eliminate the prayer recited on the High Holy Day that begins with the words, “Cast Thy fear,” as fear is the major cause of the mental illnesses that beset mankind. In order to preserve one’s mental health one should be free of fears, and so there is certainly no reason why one should ever pray for fear.’
Though I am not a psychiatrist, what he said helped me to understand the true nature of that prayer which was ordained by the Sages of Israel. And that is what I told that psychiatrist: “Everyone seems to be beset with fears of all kinds. Some are afraid that they will not be able to succeed in their careers, others fear losing their wealth or status or that they will fail to attain sufficient prominence. Many people are afraid of sickness and bodily weakness… Man is plagued constantly by all sorts of lesser fears. I am not a psychiatrist, but I do know that one major source of fear can wipe out all of these lesser fears. What fear can overtake man, thereby uprooting all other fears, such as that of failure, of poverty, of old age, of rejection or of disease? Only the fear of the L-rd! We pray that this great fear will free us from those other ones which lurk everywhere, upsetting our lives.” (On Repentance, 223)
Sometimes, fear can be liberating. Fear of G-d can allow us to submit, let go, and acknowledge we are not really in control. A little fear can help us cut through the illusions that we create for ourselves and force us to confront the realities of our lives and of the decisions we have made. We ask G-d to bestow His fear upon us so that we can regain perspective, recall what is important to us and contemplate what we want our priorities in life to be.
The Days of Awe are meant to be awe-inspiring. They are designed to shake us out of our routines and give us additional clarity. They remind us of our temporary nature, our dependence, our vulnerability and the fragility of life. By even briefly experiencing the fear of G-d, we are reminded of the purpose of our existence. And that awareness fills us with the strength we require to take responsibility for our commitments.
This Yamim Noraim season, let us not be afraid to feel some healthy fear of G-d. We do not need to avoid feeling a little uneasy. We pray, though, that we can ultimately transform this feeling into a deeper awe and reverence that will propel us towards good decisions and serving G-d with trust and love.
Shayna Goldberg is the author of the book What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear at Life’s Crossroads and in Everyday Living (Maggid, 2021) and a mashgicha ruchanit in the SKA Beit Midrash for Women of Yeshivat Har Etzion (Migdal Oz).