Fear. Leadership. Strength. Courage. by Rabbi Asher Knight

Rabbi Asher Knight
Congregational Meeting
March 13, 2019

This past Shabbat, we finished reading the book of Exodus. Near the beginning of Exodus, God spoke to Moses at the burning bush. God told Moses to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh – the most powerful person in the world – to free his slaves and upend his economic system. And God told Moses to convince the Israelites to follow Moses on a journey into the wilderness, towards the land promised to their ancient ancestors.

It’s an audacious ask: Speak truth to power. Convince hundreds of thousands of people to upend their lives and to journey towards an unknown promise and potential. And Moses’ response is “Mi Anochi?” Who am I? Or, another interpretation: Mi Anochi? WHO…ME?

Moses was just a shepherd with a flock. Who was he to confront Pharaoh? He stuttered and didn’t feel that he had the right words: Who was he to convince the people to follow him? Mi Anochi – Who Am I?

It’s a question that we’ve all asked from time-to-time, when we face the unknown, when we are confronted with fears about the future, when there are large and daunting and fundamentally important journeys that we need to take.

To ask: Mi Anochi – Who Am I? is to also ask: What fears do we have as we face the unknown? I’ve asked myself this question many times in the last few months, since the reality of what’s happening at Temple became clear to me.

What do I fear? I fear that the vibrancy that we are seeing at Temple will be lost in the message of our financial challenges. Just in the last two months, we have attracted over 300 members to TriBEs – our Small Group Initiative, while strengthening SPICE and Porch, we’ve reconfigured Hineynu, our Caring Community volunteer efforts, we’ve had inclusive and dynamic musical worship for families of all ages, we remain committed to our social justice with impressive learning from our #RaceandJustice Series, which recently included a Justice Shabbat with our city’s Mayor, and setting the foundations for strengthening relationships across lines of difference.

Nothing pleases me more than to see this kind of vibrancy. It tells me Temple Beth El is helping people live their very best Jewish lives. However, the financial challenges that we are confronting this evening threaten our temple from being the very best it can be. We face serious, structural financial deficits that will require the very best out of all of us to fix.

So, I have other fears as well. I fear the temptation to lay blame and point fingers may divide us, as we take on this challenge. I fear the human tendency to resist change may prolong our status quo and forestall much needed changes and sacrifice.

I fear we may not hear this truth: That the financial realities we are confronting tonight are very much like those that have tested our congregation’s leaders before me. I fear that our members will not see the difference in our current approach and previous approaches to solving this problem. We are challenging ourselves to arrive at solutions that get to the heart of how Temple Beth must serve a congregation and a community that has changed dramatically over the years.

Finally, I fear that only a small number of people will attempt to solve this for the rest of us. And that would be a terrible mistake. We need every one of us in this congregation to seize this moment — to engage, to become knowledgeable about our reality, and to show our commitment to our temple’s future. We will not succeed otherwise.

Again, with all these fears, I have asked myself: Mi Anochi – Who Am I?

We aren’t the first generation of Jews to face fears. The TaNaKH – the Hebrew Bible, repeatedly reminds us al tirah – don’t fear. God’s message isn’t saying to have no fears. Rather, God tells us to push through our fears and to keep them in check. God says, Al Tirah – don’t fear because our fears prevent us from making thoughtful decisions. God says, Al Tirah – don’t fear, because fears can take the form of suspicion and mistrust and bring out the worst in us.  God says, Al Tirah – don’t fear, because fear should not be – and cannot be – our operating value. Al Tirah is a Divine warning:  when we act from a place of fear and anxiety, we will likely fail to see the full picture, fail to think through the consequences of our actions, and we will likely make bad choices that undercut our potential and our opportunities for tomorrow.

One difference and challenge about our modern world versus the biblical age is that we are now conditioned to expect and demand immediate answers. In the digital atmosphere of today, yesterday is long ago and tomorrow is too far away.

But Judaism views the scope of time differently. We’ve lived through obstacles before – and we’ve overcome them. In Jewish time, the past is the context for our present; and our present actions will set the stage for future generations. And because of this – we have an obligation –  Al Tirah – to not act out of fear. Instead, we act deliberately and clearly and intentionally and mindfully: with our values, transmitted to us through the generations.

For the last few months, each and every morning, I have started my day by reading a quotation by Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

To face our fears, we need a visionary light that will help to brighten the path and illuminate our way. And to face our fears, we need to hold up a mirror – that reminds us of who we are, the ways in which our fears and realities are self-created, and a reminder that we can accomplish amazing things – because this community already has.

Al Tirah: Don’t simply fear. Fear with strength and courage.

Mi Anochi – Ask, “Who Am I?”

And know that your leadership, your time, your efforts, are needed now – more than ever. We have the capacity to face our challenges, head-on.