When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July,1969, I was in Israel on a NFTY Summer tour. On July 20th our group was working on a poor kibbutz south of Beer Sheva in the middle of the Negev Desert.
The kibbutz had one television. It was a 12” black-and-white set, which the kibbutzniks set up outside so everyone could watch. Israel was seven hours ahead of the Eastern US, so what was scheduled for daytime at home was very late at night for us. Everyone on the kibbutz gathered around that one TV, and I quickly realized that I had no chance of seeing anything meaningful on that tiny screen from the back of a few hundred people. Instead, I went for a walk.
I went out a little way into the desert. I looked up and saw the moon. Then I laid down on the ground and kept saying, over and over, “There are people walking up there right now.”
A few weeks later I got to see all the high-resolution pictures which the astronauts took. But no image of that historic event will ever equal the sight of the moon which this 16-year old saw that night. And, at the same time, no image will ever equal the things I saw in Israel that summer, just two years after the Six Day War. Because what I saw – in the desert sky and in the faces of the people I met in Israel – was courage.
Courage is in very short supply these days. It has been replaced with fear, both on the personal level and in the words and actions of our government officials. We are afraid of everything – travel, food, people who look or pray differently than we do, other countries and even our neighbors whose politics do not match ours. Between the 24-hour news cycle, which searches out tragedies to show us even when they are completely irrelevant to our lives, and politicians who have learned that fear is the easiest way to control people, we are afraid of everything.
But fear does not have to be our response to new things, or new people, or new ideas. Yes, all these can be scary; but that does not mean we have to be afraid. Reb Nachman, the great Hassidic master, said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to fear at all. Easier said than done? Of course. But it can be done. It just takes courage.
When I came home from Israel in August,1969, I started taking flying lessons. Three months later – still 16 years old – I flew solo for the first time. I remember it as if it was yesterday: Certain moments made me nervous, but I was not afraid.
My advice to every Bar and Bat Mitzvah student is that it is fine to be nervous. After all, you’re doing something you have never done before. But having prepared well, there is no reason to be afraid.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Politicians have known this for centuries. So try this: the next time you read or see something that makes you feel afraid, stop and ask yourself two simple questions: First, what does this person have to gain from scaring me? And second, do I really need to feel scared, just because this person wants me to be?
Challenges lead to fear and retreat, or courage and growth. Which path we choose will decide much of our lives in the days and years ahead.
Rabbi Don Weber