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Face your fears

S2
E25
9mins

In this heartfelt episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a personal story about a recent ER visit with his son. He explores the intense emotions of fear and gratitude during the ordeal, connecting his experience to the Torah portion of Shelach, and the story of how fear overtook the Israelite spies when they first entered the land of Israel.

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I need to begin this episode with something of a trigger warning. I’m going to talk about some raw stuff, including my recent visit to the ER with my child.

The story has a happy outcome, but if you’re concerned at all about what feelings might arise for you right now, I want to give you permission and encouragement to listen at a time that’s good for you.

As we talked about in episode 6 of season 1, Hillel the Elder’s age-old question, “If not now, when?” might really mean, “If now isn’t a good time, you gotta know when a better time could be.” So, take your time.

So here’s the whole story. A few weeks ago, my 11-year old son Toby came to me and said, “Abba, I need to earn 32 dollars.”

A very precise amount. I asked why. “Because there’s this pair of sunglasses that has a built-in bluetooth speaker above the ear and I want to get them. They cost $40. I have $8. So I need to earn $32.” 

I resisted the impulse to tell Toby all the reasons I thought this was a bad idea  and instead chose to admire his motivation. “We have a lot of weeding and cleaning up in the backyard to do,” I told him. “Help me out on Sunday and you can earn the money.”

Sunday morning came and Toby and I were in the backyard cutting down overgrown bushes and stuffing organic material into big brown bags.

He was a great helper–happy, enthusiastic, eager to get the job done and earn his reward. After a long day’s work, Toby’s friend came over for a sleepover, and they stayed up late playing X-Box and talking.

I could hear some sneezing and coughing but didn’t make much of it. Usual allergies, I figured. But Monday came and it was getting a little worse.

By Monday evening, he was wheezing a lot, and his inhaler wasn’t helping. By the time he was ready for bed, he was having a full-blown asthma attack, and by 10pm, we left for the emergency room.

Now, of course there are worse things. But watching my son hooked up to a bunch of monitors and getting albuterol through a mask in the middle of the night while I watched his O2 levels and his heart rate and waited for doctors and updates…it was rough.

Sitting there exhausted at 12, 1, 2 am, I experienced such a range of thoughts and emotions: Gratitude for everyone taking care of Toby, and that we have health insurance and speak the same language as the people taking care of my son; fear and pity as I looked over at my beautiful boy; pride at what a trouper he was; and tremendous anxiety at all the unknowns–how long would it take for him to be healthy again? How long until we could go home? 

At about 3 am, Toby was transferred by ambulance to the children’s ward at another hospital. After we both got some sleep, they wheeled in a Playstation and gave us the kosher room service menu.

And from there on out, the kid was as happy as a pig in slop: NBA2k, unlimited matzoh ball soup, and as many brownies as he wanted.

What wasn’t to love?  We got discharged around 8 pm and made it home just in time to begin the holiday of Shavuot. He was all better. Thank God.

There are a few morals to this story. I should have been more mindful of my son’s allergies. I also should have remembered to go straight to the hospital with the children’s ward. And, critically, I should really just hire people to do our yard care.

But what I’ve found my mind returning to the most is that long night in the ER, and especially the fear I felt. I’m not great on little sleep. Yet I was able to notice that when fear arose, my mindfulness practice was able to kick in a bit. It helped me not to avoid the fear, but to notice it, acknowledge it, and then ask myself, “What do I want to do with this fear? Be controlled by it? Or make another choice?” And I found that that helped a lot. 

The Torah portion of Shelach tells one of the saddest stories in the Torah. As the Israelites are on their way to the Promised Land, Moses sends spies ahead to scout it out. They come back and share what they saw–and what they saw scared them: nations that were mightier than the Israelites; a land that “devours its inhabitants.” We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, they say, and we must have looked that way to the other people there.

Hearing all of this, the people are totally deflated. The spies’ fear infects the entire nation. Everyone says, “Screw it–Let’s just go back to Egypt.” Hearing this, God decides that this generation just doesn’t have what it takes, and that the people will have to wander for 40 years in the wilderness so that they can die out and a new generation can grow up to enter the Promised Land. Seriously sucky.

Here, too, there are some morals. But what I often think about is the lesson about fear. And I think what it’s saying is not that we shouldn’t be afraid at all. As we’ve talked about before on this podcast, fear is natural. We shouldn’t feel guilty for experiencing it.

The key question is how we respond to our fear. Can we create any space between the stimulus that’s making us fearful and the way we choose to respond? If we can create that space, then perhaps we can acknowledge our fear and set it aside–in favor of gratitude or generosity, strength or wisdom. That’s what our practices are designed to help us do–to allow the negative emotions to be present, but not to lead us reactively back into Egypt, Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness and constriction.

During that long night in the hospital, I found a song arising for me. It’s a song we’ve played before on this show, after the horrible day of October 7, 2023. The lyrics are by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and it’s called kol haolam kulo. The words as we have them are, “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid.” The melody is by Rabbi Baruch Chait, and this version is sung by the Maayan Band.

As I shared back in October, in Rebbe Nachman’s original teaching, the words are slightly different than what we sing. Rebbe Nachman actually said, v’ha’ikar lo l’hitpached klal–the essential thing is not to make ourselves afraid. And I think that, like the story of the spies, like that night in the ER, like the encounters with fear so many of us have been experiencing these last eight months, the lesson is this: we can’t honestly control whether we’re afraid or not. But we do have some control over how we respond to our fear–we can make ourselves more afraid, more isolated, more closed in; or we can try to respond to fear with love, with connection, with expansiveness. That night in the hospital, singing this song helped me to deal with my fear. And perhaps listening to it now can help you too.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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