“One who learns but does not review is like someone who plants but does not harvest,” teaches the Talmud. Reviewing Torah is known as CHAZARAH — we do CHAZARAH because Torah is not only information but also transformation. I would like to do CHAZARAH on a lesson we have learned from our teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory. 

This is a teaching on fear. The word itself might already bring up constriction. Just notice if that is the case for you. 

Bring to mind the last time you felt fear. This doesn’t have to be terror or panic — just become aware, if you can, of the time, location, and sensations of a recent or notable experience of fear.

I am going to invite you to join me in practicing cultivating an awareness of fear — both throughout this talk and throughout our lives.

Don’t fear: I’m not going to try to scare or menace you. I think there’s enough fear in the world already. I want us to get better acquainted with what fear is and how it lives in our bodies and lives.

Reb Zalman’s MASHPIAH — his spiritual guide and coach — taught him that there are three words for fear in the Torah. Each of these fear words has different qualities and valences. Discerning the varieties of fear can help the plasticity of our minds, the expansion of our souls, and guide us towards general ease.

One term Torah uses for fear is PACHAD. Terror. This is often associated with the character Isaac, who in this week’s portion is nearly ritually slaughtered by his father. We might imagine that the ADIEKAH — the Binding of Isaac — leaves permanent psychic scars on him. PACHAD YITZCHAK — the terror of Isaac — is fear as something sharp. The word PACHAD can be broken down, as if under a butcher’s knife, into the words PO CHAD. “There it is sharp.” This kind of fear has a distinct edge, a precise etiology.

When you thought of that recent fear experience was it sharp in your mind or more inchoate? 

If it was uncertain, murky, lurking in the dark, perhaps you experienced the fear Torah calls AIMAH. This word can dissolve and disperse into two other concepts: AYEH MAH. AYEH — where is it? MAH — what is it? AIMAH is foreshadowed and shadowy fear; misty, creeping, nearly pouncing, in potentia.

PACHAD pulls us into the past; AIMAH has us flinching against the future. Sometimes fear keeps us rehashing and recapitulating disasters; sometimes fear thrusts us toward catastrophizing.

The third form of fear is called YIRAH. It is related to the verb LIROT, “to see.” Reb Zalman says “we need to go to the Latin for this one,” to see etymological roots. SPECT in Latin appears in words for seeing like inspect, spectacles, and spectrum. YIRAH is a form of re-spect, of seeing again, of reverent awe. YIRAH is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” This “fear of G-D” is a rooted astonishment at the capacity to see and be seen, a reverence for forces that simultaneously form and transform us.

It is so important to cultivate awareness of fear in the body because our nervous system is like time: if we don’t use it, someone or something else will. 

Perhaps the last time you experienced fear was of the PACHAD or AIMAH type? The next time you encounter fear that traps you in the past or has you bracing for the future: just notice it. Respect it as information. We are not trying to eradicate or eliminate fear. We can do that just as much as we can stop the mind from thinking. Fear and thoughts are both parts of the landscape of being embodied — they will be there — but they do not have to occlude the truth. Through this noticing, we can cultivate YIRAH, a vibrating reverence for the vitality, uncertainty, and uncontrollability of life…

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יהוה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח־הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם

YHVH appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre;
he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (Genesis 18:1)


This teaching on fear was returned to me this week because our Parsha is called Vayera — “God appeared.” This seeing, this theophany immediately proceeds Abraham's famous response: snapping into action, hastily providing hospitality, and demonstrating abundant loving-kindness towards three complete strangers. Like Abraham, let's practice welcoming all guests in whatever fearsome guises vagrant magi may wear. Our senses have information for us. They may be heralds of good tidings. We too can sit under the terebinths, the teaching trees, perched at the opening of the tent of awareness, shining the light of consciousness, like the bright, unsheathed sun.

First, in the beginning, sitting under a tree, and later in our Parsha Abraham plants a tree.

The Tamarisk is a strong, beautiful, deeply rooted, and shade-giving tree. In Hebrew, the Tamarisk is called an ESHEL. I invite you to experience your nervous system, your spine, your body, your organs, your tissues, as strong, beautiful, deeply rooted, and shade-giving.

SUKKAT SHELOMECHA. This canopy of integration and wholeness. One of Sarah our Mother the Prophetess' other names is YISKAH, related to Sukkah. "The one who draws down the prophetic."

In Hebrew, this Tamarisk tree is called an ESHEL. Midrash teaches that ESHEL is an acronym: ACHILAH/food. SHTIYAH/drink. LEVAYAH/accompaniment. ESHEL: "food, drink, and accompaniment." Abraham and Sarah are models of providing all a soul journeyer may need.

May we each grow in generosity on this life-giving path of CHESED, loving-kindness, becoming strong, deeply rooted, and sheltering embodiments of reverence and respect.

May we provide and be provided the sustenance we need — food, the drink.

And may we enjoy it with friends. May we provide good company, being companions and guides to one another with love and respect.

Shabbat Shalom.

Image: 'Sketch of the comedy tale Marshak 'Woe to fear - happiness can not see". Royal chambers by Konstantin Yuon
Original Title: Эскиз к сказке-комедии Маршака 'Горя бояться -счастья не видать'. Царская палата
Date: 1954
Style: Art Nouveau (Modern)
Source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/konstantin-yuon/sketch-of-the-comedy-tale-marshak-woe-to-fear-happiness-can-not-see-royal-chambers-1954/

shir feit


Shir Yaakov is Kol Hai's founder and spiritual director.