Not to make oneself afraid
December 01, 2015
Do you know the song "כל העולם כולו / Kol Ha'Olam Kulo"? It's a setting (by Baruch Chait) of a quote from the Hasidic master known as Reb Nachman of Breslov. Here are the words as I learned them many years ago: כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד / והעקר לא לפחד כלל, usually translated as "All the world is a very narrow bridge / the important thing is not to be afraid." (If you don't know the song, you can click over to my 2008 post about it.)
I've just discovered that I've been singing it wrong all these years -- and while I like the song the way I learned it, the correct lyric is much more powerful for me.
I learned the lyric as לא לפחד כלל - "[the important thing is] not to fear at all." But it turns out that the original song lyric is different. In place of לפחד (to fear) it says להתפחד, which is a reflexive verb; it means something like to make oneself afraid, to "fear-ify" oneself. The important thing is not to make oneself afraid, not to live in a constant state of fear, not to act and think and make choices from a place of fear.
That works for me so much better than the injunction not to be afraid. "The important thing is not to fear at all" -- it has a nice ring to it, but who among us can live by that motto all the time? Sometimes fear is the only reasonable response to the situation in which one finds oneself. Sometimes fear is necessary. Sometimes fear is inevitable. And pretending that one isn't afraid -- trying to pretend any emotion away, no matter what it might be! -- is not spiritually healthy.
But "The important thing is not to make oneself afraid," or "not to live from a place of fear" -- that speaks to me. Reb Nachman isn't teaching that I should hide my fear from myself, or pretend I never fear, or berate myself when I do feel fear. What's important is that I not allow the fear to rule me. What's important is that I not allow my fears to limit me, to dictate the contours of my hopes, or my dreams, or my choices.
There will be times in every life when the world feels like a narrow bridge over a deep chasm, a fragile and uncertain pathway with risk on every side. In those times, we're called not to eschew fear but to inhabit it... and to remember that if we don't let our fears rule us, we will be able to cross over to the other side.