“Think of the thing you are most afraid of in the world…” Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller instructed us at last night’s class.
I mentally thumbed through my rolodex of fears until I arrived at The Fear. And I began imagining that the nightmare I’ve dreaded for so many years is actually, finally happening. I feel my chest tighten up, it’s getting hard to breathe…
Rebbetzin Heller is watching her watch. “Stop! That was 20 seconds…It felt a lot longer though, right?”
“Now let me ask a question. How many of you here are afraid of mice?”
About half the hands in the room shot up.
“A question to those of you who didn’t raise your hands. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and in the darkness you step on something furry and it squeaks and scratches you! That would be scary for any of us, right?”
Laughter fills the room. Right, Rebbetzin.
“But I want all of you to understand that it is possible to overcome that fear. This is what you would have to do… For a few weeks you would get used to sitting across the room from a mouse in a cage. And then for a few weeks you would sit closer. And then for a few weeks even closer. And after a few months a friend who is not afraid of mice would hold the mouse, and you would put your hand on the back of her hand as she held it.”
“It might take a year, but eventually every single one of you would actually be holding that mouse without fear.”
“Moving on…How many of you have been to Niagara Falls?” Again, about half of the hands in the room shot up.
“Well, what would happen if you were really thirsty so you took out your handy Waterford crystal wine glass and crossed the safety barrier in order to fill up that wine glass from the Niagara Falls?”
“You would die!” a woman in the front row offered.
“Yes, you would die.” And then she went on to talk about Shvirat HaKelim, the breaking of the vessels. When our vessels are, like that ill-fated wine glass, too restricted and fragile to contain Hashem’s abundance so they shatter instead.
And Rebbetzin Heller explained that when you see that mouse, or any fear, you can choose one of two reactions. You could scream “Moooooouse!” or you could tell yourself that facing this fear instead of fleeing from it is making you stronger. It’s making you greater. It’s transforming you into an expansive and solid vessel that can contain whatever Niagara Fallses life sends your way.
And then Rebbetzin Heller concluded with a story, about a 19-year-old relative who was spending his summer vacation driving travelers home from the Los Angeles Airport.
One Friday, that relative was driving home his final passenger when he found himself in a huge frozen-molasses traffic jam. Hours and hours passed. Until the relative looked at his watch and realized that it was 6 PM.
He promptly pulled over to the side of the highway, and explained to his passenger that he was very sorry, but he was Jewish, and for Jews Saturday actually starts on Friday, and from that moment on he wasn’t allowed to work any more.
The passenger yelled at the boy. Cursed at him. Screamed at him, “You idiot!”
But the teenager wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t afraid of this passenger. Because he had only one fear: fear of G-d.
And about two decades later, when that passenger was thinking about his life, and realized that he had dedicated his entire life to a fantasy: to fleeting things like fame, money, popularity…
And that passenger tried to think of somebody, anybody he had ever met who had been real. And he said, “I did meet somebody real once.”
And that passenger came to Israel and became religious, and was reunited with the man who had infuriated him so deeply but ultimately inspired him so powerfully, by showing him that it is possible to live without all the false fears that fill our minds and our hearts.
Fear of poverty and embarrassment and loneliness and illness and death. Because while danger is real, fear is our choice. Fears, in reality, are nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves.
And ultimately, we human beings should really only have One True Fear.
And watching Rebbetzin Heller last night, so soon after the passing of her beloved husband this past fall, inspiring us and enlightening us and making us laugh just like she always has, I felt that while I had learned so much from her words, I had learned the most from her…
From seeing a woman who is overcoming grief and shock and fear to continue serving Hashem by spreading His Torah and His light to His daughters who need and love her so much.
I heard this class at a benefit evening for Rena’s Place/Aishel, a therapeutic group home for homeless Jewish girls.