D’var Torah: She’lo yitpacheid klal – facing the fears of a New Year

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 January 2020

This year will see something that has only happened twice before since the war; indeed, it will only be the fourth time in Alyth’s existence.
What is this rare occurrence?
A five Shabbat February.

It can only happen in a leap year, and only on a leap year which starts on a Wednesday.  And this has only happened three times before since 1933.

OK.  It may only be me who is excited by this.  But there are other things to look forward to as we begin a new year, too.  An exciting year in the arts, in music, in sport.  An exciting year at Alyth, in the development of our building, of our team.

There are anniversaries in the year ahead, both personal and national, both positive and those which will be more sombre.  2020 includes both the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and of the liberation of the camps, including that in April 1945 of Bergen Belsen by British troops.

And, as every year, the New Year comes also with anxieties.  Anxiety about what Brexit will bring; anxiety about continuing – indeed, today, increased – instability in the Middle East.  Anxiety about the continuing reality of climate change – the very real impact of our behaviour on our world, as we see right now in Australia, and with the news that we continue to break records of extreme weather in this country.  Anxiety too brought by the experience of anti-Semitism – expressed again this month in violence in America, and here also present, including in our local area last week.

Whatever else it brings, the world remains a frightening place.
So, as we begin a new year, we return once again to the words of Nachman of Bratslav that you can see on your shul sheet.
“Know, a person needs to cross a very, very narrow bridge. The main rule is: Do not be afraid at all.”

Nachman gives us a number of important insights about how to approach the anxieties of life.
Firstly, the inevitability of the challenge.  Nachman did not teach “the world is a narrow bridge”, though that is what we have come to sing, but rather da she-ha’adam tzarich la’avor – know that a person has no choice but to walk the narrow bridge.  We would be naïve to expect that the challenges and anxieties of life can be avoided.

Secondly, v’ha’ikar she’lo yitpached klal – the essential thing is not to be afraid.  In using the root P’ch’d as the verb for fear Nachman warns us that the fear we need to resist is an internal one.  According to Rabbi Alan Lew, ‘Pachad [is] projected or imagined fear”.  It is not only the reality but the experience that matters.  And, as Alan Lew continues, “It is astounding how often such fears become the organizing principles of our lives and how much they close us off from the world.’

This is emphasised by the way that the verb is used by Nachman.  Not l’facheid – though, again, this is how it is sung, ‘to be afraid’ – but rather yitpached, the reflexive form.  That is, we should not cause ourselves fear, paralyze ourselves with fear.

As we enter this year with the anxieties and well the joys, and the five Shabbat February, that it will bring, let us remember the words of Nachman of Bratslav.  The importance of perspective and not to allow our fears to define us in the year ahead.
And on our unavoidable journeys across the bridge, let us accompany one another, holding one another’s hands, she’lo yitpacheid klal, so that we do not make ourselves afraid.

Happy New Year