The Gift of Fear

The Gift of Fear – September 2014

  • Snakes.
  • Speaking in front of an audience
  • Heights
  • Being closed in a small space
  • Spiders and insects
  • Needles and getting shots
  • Mice
  • Flying on an airplane
  • Dogs
  • Thunder and lightning
  • Crowds
  • Going to the doctor


According to a Gallup Poll, when Americans were asked what scares them the most, these, in descending order, were the top responses. I’m going to read them again. Ask yourself if any or all of these make you afraid:

  • Snakes.
  • Speaking in front of an audience
  • Heights
  • Being closed in a small space
  • Spiders and insects
  • Needles and getting shots
  • Mice
  • Flying on an airplane
  • Dogs
  • Thunder and lightning
  • Crowds
  • Going to the doctor


If you only have a few of these fears, or if you don’t have any of them, you’re lucky. For many of us, fear is our constant companion, our day-to-day enemy, and our ultimate challenge.

Fear feeds our negative thoughts.

Fear feeds our desperate need to control things because we’re so scared of all the things we can’t control.

Another survey asked people what higher themes scare them. Here the list is very different.

Failure is Number 1.

Then: Death

  • Rejection
  • Ridicule
  • Loneliness
  • Misery
  • Pain
  • Disappointment
  • The unknown
  • Losing your freedom


Something strikes me about all of the fears in these polls. Not one of them is in my top ten. My top ten fears have nothing to do with me. My fears all concern the top ten or twenty people in my life. I’m less scared about anything bad happening to me than I am about even lesser things happening, G-d forbid a million times in the middle of the night, to those who are dear to me. That’s what my worst fears are about. I worry about my kids and I’m overprotective and frankly I’m a lot to handle because I worry too much. And the more I know about the details of their lives, the more I worry. I know that many people here can absolutely relate to what I’m saying.

Still, I’m interested in what people are scared of, so let me go over that first list: Snakes. Spiders and insects. Mice. Dogs.

Some of you are baffled, especially those who love your dogs. But just because you’re personally not sensitive to a certain fear does not mean that you should minimize how difficult this fear is for others. This is an important point: We often make fun of each other when one has a fear that the other does not have. We should never do this.

When someone is burdened with such fears, it is very real and even paralyzing to them. And we need to be more sensitive.

When I find that I’m being insensitive in this way, and, all too often, I have been insensitive, I ask myself if I don’t have my own strange fears. And I realize that I have one, one that others will think is ridiculous:

Roller coasters.

If you offered me a million dollars to ride one of those big amusement park roller coasters, I would say NO without a thought. I don’t know why, I don’t need to know why; I’m not going on one of those monsters. Others who think roller coasters are the greatest fun will think I’m nuts. I don’t care. There are a couple of people here, whose last name is Weinstein, who took a vacation going from one amusement park to another just to ride the roller coasters. Something like 62 rollercoaster rides. To each is own, but to me, that would be like visiting the different levels of Hell.

I had this conversation once with my son Danny and his friend Edgar. I told them that I would not go on a roller coaster for a million dollars.

And Edgar asked, “What if Danny or Josh’s life depended on you riding a roller coaster?”

“Of course,” I said, “I’d go on immediately, wouldn’t even thinking about it.”

“Well, what if my life depended on it?” Edgar asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I really don’t know you very well.”

And Edgar said, “I see how it is.”

My point is not to start a fundraiser for the shul by raising a million dollars to get me to go on a rollercoaster. My point, as the recent popular Divergent novels illustrate, is that each person has his or her own set of fears.

I don’t fear speaking in front of an audience. But I work with people every day for whom, these three little steps over here are the equivalent of climbing a mountain. So just because I’m fairly comfortable on this bima doesn’t mean that I should ignore how hard it is for others to be up here.

Remember: It’s easy to be brave about fears that you don’t have.


Let me mention a few other fears from that list: Needles and getting shots and going to the doctor.

This is a lot more important than mice or bugs. I knew people who are no longer with us because of these fears.

They had terrible chest pains and told no one.

They felt lumps and didn’t do anything.

They knew that something was wrong and didn’t want to find out what it was.

And in a lot of those cases, doing something would have saved their lives or at least extended their lives by years. But they were so scared of doctors or needles or operations that they didn’t do anything. And the worst happened.

How many times have I heard something like this: “Well, I had a checkup scheduled in a few weeks, so I thought I’d just deal with the chest pains till that date.”

If those same people had seen those warning signs happening to their loved ones, they would have been dragging their sick loved one by the feet to the doctor immediately.

Sometimes, one kind of fear runs counter to another: The fear of doctors and operations and needles against the fear of sickness and death. And you’re

thinking, “But that isn’t rational: If you’re scared of sickness and death, you should not be afraid of doctors and operations.” You’re right. But Fear can be irrational.

Any time I am about to be critical of such irrational behavior, I just think about that million dollars that I’d give up rather than ride a rollercoaster for a few minutes. Fear is its own dimension of existence.


Still, as someone who cares about all of you, can I just ask: Can we get our fears straight? Can we, in advance, promise to at least tell someone when we’re afraid that we’re facing a medical crisis?

When it comes to your body, just be half as afraid as you would be if it were happening to someone you cared about.

Fear can be a gift that literally will save our lives.

Fear should not be a red light that stops us. Instead, fear should be a yellow light about things we are doing wrong or even better a green light to go do something in a better direction.

We all talk about the “High Holidays.” The Hebrew term for these sacred days is very different: Yamim Noraim. This phrase is usually translated, “Days of Awe.” We are in awe of G-d. But a more literal translation would be “Days of Fear.” People don’t like it when I speak about being afraid of G-d. Because “fear” seems to be a bad word.

But my point today is that fear, an emotion that we hate to feel, fear, which we are afraid of, is actually a GIFT. On these Yamim Noraim, on these Days of Awe and Fear, I am saying that fear can be a positive force in our lives, a force that we should talk about and channel to improve our lives.

People have always told you not to be afraid of anything. Fear is associated with weakness. It’s for cowards. You can find hundreds of self-improvement blogs or self-help gurus that tell you that fear is a bad thing.

But I am saying that fear can be a gift that we can use.

Fear is hard-wired into the brain. Our brains are built with a primitive fear system developed early in human evolution. Consciousness itself may have developed as an evolutionary response to the problem of fear. If our ancestors did not respect their fears, we would not be here.

Fear is often appropriate and constructive. In Divergent, one character says to another: “Fear doesn’t shut you down. It wakes you up.” That’s right: Fear is a gift that can wake us up.

Everyone who has ever told you not to be afraid of anything is mistaken.

Embrace fear, know how to use it and it will be your best friend

Fear can be a sign that you are doing something really new and exciting

 The hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, but the hero confronts his fear and converts it into action.

We think that we live in scary times that are more dangerous than, say, the 1950’s or 60’s. But I think this is wrong. In the 1950’s, there were no mandatory seat belts, there were no air bags, there was no early detection of cancer, there was no 911 system to show dispatchers the addresses of people in distress. Those carefree 1950’s had no CAT scans, ultrasound, organ transplants or coronary bypass surgery. How about those carefree 60’s when we practiced regular air raid drills fearing a nuclear attack?

As a society, we have used fear well to make changes. But that does not mean that our country fully recognizes the dangers in this world.

So far I haven’t said anything you will disagree with. So let me say something that many of you will not like. Our country is not fearful enough about things that are going on in the world today. I’m a very simple person and I know what evil is.

It is evil to subject half of the population to second-class status.

It is evil to enslave

It is evil to kidnap.

It is evil to abuse.

This is a very complex world, but some things are self-evident. And to be so naïve about evil, to think that you can appease evil, that you can talk to evil people and rationally come to terms with them and get them to desist from their goals, is not only foolish; it is dangerous to the extreme.


So you can run for President and say, “I’m getting America out of these wars and here’s the timetable,” but then you see that evil people can tell time and they plan their next move accordingly. It’s really easy to criticize someone in charge, but when you’re in charge, you see all of the realities that your predecessor faced and you realize that you have to do the same things that he did.

Or you can be President for five years and insist that terrorism is not a threat, while terrorists take over huge areas in the Middle East.

And then when the evil people start beheading innocent civilians, all of a sudden we wake up, not realizing that the beheadings were specifically designed to provoke our response.

As Americans, we should be more afraid of what is going on in this world.

Why aren’t we?

Because of a process called “distancing.” You hear something on the radio, there’s a flood in Arkansas or Indonesia, and you say, “There are no floods around here.”

You hear about a shooting at a mall in California and you do a quick inventory to make sure none of your loved ones are in California

Unless it hits home, unless we have some very specific personal connection to the event, we hear about it, distance ourselves into thinking it has nothing to do with us, and never think about it again.

Distancing is a normal response, a coping mechanism.

I get that. I do it, too.

But just because the war against evil is at a distance, don’t be fooled. We’re in a war in this world. We’re in a world war.

But somehow, it always takes a crisis to get us upset.

Why can’t we use anticipatory fear?

Why do we have to wait for a medical crisis or a family crisis or a marital crisis or a war or a terrorist attack to be worried?

For years, some of us have not worried about the future of Israel. Many people here were born after Israel was already an established fact, and it never occurred to them that anything bad could really happen.

This summer reminded us that Israel is always in danger.

Since the beginning of its existence, Israel has not fought a series of wars but one long war just to survive.

Never dismiss the existential danger Israel is always, always in. The missiles and rockets are always falling.

Fear for Israel. And act on your fears. Support Israel in every way you can.


Another issue that we should be more afraid of is the threat to our personal privacy. I believe in every person’s right to his or her privacy. This is a constitutional right and a basic human right. But we are allowing our society to be transformed into a place where everybody knows everything about everybody. And if you ask me, a lot of us feed the beast. We don’t need to see that you’re out shopping. The thieves are grateful for this information. My mother, G-d bless her, is on Facebook all the time and she knows more about my life than I do. This makes her very happy, but I think we’ve gone overboard, and some place down this road is something dangerous, and that is the end of privacy. Our culture is consumed with knowing everything about everybody and I am afraid we will be consumed in ways we cannot even imagine.


Be afraid of not having medical insurance and car insurance and home insurance. Don’t think that it can’t happen to you.


Be afraid of not having money when you get older, even though it’s hard to put money away when you’re young and you need the money now. I see people in their later years that don’t have money for medicine and food; please plan better. The years go by faster than you think.


On these High Holidays, be honest with yourself. Think about what you’re scared of. Don’t be tough and macho; be real. And then ask yourself if there are things you could be doing better to protect yourself and the people in your life.

Someone asked me, “But how do I transform fear into a gift?” The answer is prayer. The answer is G-d. I pray three times a day, and many of those times I am praying to G-d to help me transform my fears into action. G-d gives me the perspective to take fears and do something about them.


I’m not afraid of snakes or mice but unless my children’s lives depend on it, I will never go on a roller coaster. The way I figure it, life is scary enough, it has enough loops and falls and dips that I don’t need to subject myself to that kind of artificial torture.

I want to reserve my fear for the things that matter.

I know that I sound like that old Jewish joke about the telegram that reads: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

But fear is a gift.

We must use it.

We must use it to protect our loved ones,

to protect ourselves

to protect the world from evil oppression 

to protect our freedom from unwanted intrusion.

We have to use fear to plan for the future.

Using fear is not cowardly; it is the ultimate courage, if we channel it to protect life as we want it to be.