In case you missed my sermon last night or would like to read it
Has anyone here played the game Candy Crush? It’s a game with seemingly infinite levels that you can play on your phone or through Facebook. I played Candy Crush until about level 150, when I realized that I was starting to get addicted. But I have friends who have gotten to level 400 and far beyond. While many people here tonight grew up without any electronic games, I grew up in a time when there were video games like Super Mario Brothers with a set number of levels. Once you beat the set number of levels, you beat the game. There was an immense feeling of accomplishment when you beat not only another level, but also the entire game after rescuing the princess from the eighth and final castle.
As in video games, there are many things we try to “beat” in real life. We can try to beat traffic or the crowds or the clock. Many of us also try to beat or conquer our fears. This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, provides important insights about the process of dealing with fear. Our patriarch Abram seems to conquer his fear Super Mario Brothers-style. God asks Abram to leave everything he knows—his country, his homeland, his father’s house—and go to some mysterious land that God will show him. Abram doesn’t hesitate. He just gets up and goes, bringing his wife Sarai and nephew Lot with him from Haran to Canaan. If he had any fears, it seems like he conquered them all.
But shortly thereafter, we see a paradigm shift. Famine strikes Canaan, and Abram has to look elsewhere for food. He ends up going all the way down to Egypt. But before he gets there, we realize that he hasn’t completely conquered his fears. Abram’s fear becomes apparent again when he asks his wife, Sarai, to lie about her identity before they enter Egypt. Abram is worried that the Egyptian men will kill him in order to have access to his gorgeous wife.
How can a man who was so brave, who so easily left everything he knew for an unknown land, now let his fear take over to the point where he makes such an absurd request of his wife?
It may seem a bit strange, but it’s actually pretty realistic. People don’t just conquer their fears in one fell swoop. It takes time. We can have moments of bravery and sometimes relapse into fear and anxiety again. But if we stick with it, we can get better about confronting our fears. The only way to conquer a fear is to confront it again and again.
That may be part of why we celebrate holidays like Yom Kippur and Halloween each year. Many people’s greatest fear is of death. The fear of our own mortality has led to many creative euphemisms for death and countless products that mask the signs of aging to help us avoid our fear of life’s natural cycles.
But fortunately, holidays like Yom Kippur and Halloween give us a chance to confront death in a safe way each year. On Yom Kippur, we behave as dead people do. We do not eat, drink, bathe, or have marital relations. Some people even wear kittels or white robes that are used for burial. Yom Kippur is a day to practice dying, so that it’s not as scary later when it really happens. Halloween is another holiday when we surround ourselves with images of death – skeletons, ghosts, and zombies – all to desensitize us to the trauma of life’s end.
Each year, these holidays encourage us to confront our fear again because we need the repeated exposure. Fear is not conquered in the manner of Super Mario Brothers. It is more like Candy Crush. There are multiple levels of fear. We may conquer one fear like Abram, and then struggle more with another fear. But the more we confront our fears, the less scary they become. May we all be blessed like Abram with the resilience to confront our fears again and again, until they have disappeared from our lives. And may we be blessed also like Abram with courage and peace. Amen.