A Powerful Remedy To Fear: The Fast of Yom Kippur & Ashura
Concern and anger overcame us when we heard that a mother and daughter had been punched in the face in the subway In Queens, New York. Seeing the Orthodox Jewish woman’s head covering, the assailant mistook the pair as Muslim, assaulted them and yelled “get out of my country.” The New York Daily News reports that hate crimes are up by 33% in New York and Muslims have seen a 48% increase in hate incidents since last year. Nation-wide, the Anti Defamation League reports that “anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to same period last year.” With the rise in hateful sentiments toward both Muslim and Jewish communities and the lack of differentiation between both communities, it is clear that Muslims and Jews are seen as “the other, together.” Indeed, we know several women who have chosen to no longer wear their head coverings in public, and families who are choosing not to display their religious attire in public spaces.
Feeling this fear ourselves, we recognize the urge to retreat and retract, to focus on protecting our loved ones and ourselves. And yet, fear has a way of restricting us in ways that — while they might initially protect us — may ultimately put us at greater risk. Egyptian icon and poet, Naguib Mahfouz encapsulates this danger in his quote: “Fear does not lead to life, fear leads to death.” Perhaps in this case, it might mean that if we act on our urge to isolate, we cheat ourselves out of relationships with allies which could help strengthen us in the long run.
[pullquote align=left] At the beginning of the New Year for both Jews and Muslims, an important time for reflection for both our communities, it seems an important moment to consider how we can strengthen one another and ourselves to move through the type of fear which can paralyze and cause us to face greater jeopardy.
[/pullquote]At the beginning of the New Year for both Jews and Muslims, an important time for reflection for both our communities, it seems an important moment to consider how we can strengthen one another and ourselves to move through the type of fear which can paralyze and cause us to face greater jeopardy. Perhaps we can turn to the imagery of our holidays for some insight..
Jews refer to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the Yamim Nora’im, “The Days of Fear/Awe.” Rosh Hashanah is the time when the tradition recognizes the sovereignty of God as Creator of the World, Witness and Judge. God has the capacity for sight and perspective beyond anything we can imagine.
The themes of both fear and sight weave through many of the Biblical texts read on the High Holidays. The ability to see things not seen before recurs in the readings — for instance, in the moment that Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram revealed in the thicket, waiting to be sacrificed in the place of his son, Isaac. Throughout the holidays, the liturgy and texts call us to widen our perspective, to see something beyond immediate reality.
Although not a part of the high holiday canon, there is a moment later on in the Torah which seems pertinent here. The Torah presents a pun between the words “fear” and “sight.” At the beginning of Exodus, the actions of many women brings Moses into the world and keeps him safe. There are two midwives described as “Hebrew midwives” or “Midwives to the Hebrews.” Are they Hebrews or Egyptians? We don’t know. We do know that when given a commandment by Pharaoh (“LOOK at the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill it” Exodus 4:16) instead of paying attention to the gender of the child, “the midwives feared God and did not do as Pharaoh commanded, and let the boys live.” (Exodus 4:17). The word “look” and the word “fear” act as homonyms for one another in the Hebrew. The midwives have taken Pharaoh’s command and reinterpreted it; they are able to see something beyond the immediate danger of Pharaoh’s retribution which gives them the strength and moral clarity to act on behalf of their people (if they are Hebrews) or act in solidarity with the Hebrews (if they are Egyptian).
While the midwives made Moses’ life possible by achieving perspective beyond their immediate physical fears, the Quran also has a rendition of the fear that unfolded in the story of Moses. For Sunni Muslims, this story is at the center of the holiday of Ashura. And as with Yom Kippur, this year Ashura is observed from Friday evening through Saturday evening. Muslims fast during this time to commemorate the day that Moses fasted as gratitude for the liberation of the Israelites. Shia Muslims mourn the death of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad during this time and refrain from all celebration.
The Muslim tradition dives into the story of Moses in Chapter 20, fraught with fear. A mother, due to fear, places her baby into the river, and out of fear tells a sister to follow the baby undetected, he is saved by the Pharaoh’s wife, but once grown, Moses flees in fear after deadly confrontation, telling his story to a shepherd despite his fear of retribution. Eventually he entertains the idea of facing the Pharaoh. When Moses and his brother Aaron express hesitation prior to confronting the Pharaoh. God says: “‘Do not be afraid, I am with you both, hearing and seeing everything.” [Quran 20:46]. The Almighty also tells Moses to speak gently to the Pharaoh when requesting freedom for the Israelites– telling them to “speak softly so that he may hear his transgressions” [Quran 20:44] . This command is perplexing given the Pharaoh is the greatest of oppressors and transgressors. And yet soft and gentle speech is the directive given by God so that the message is heard and made possible to reflect upon. The whole while, Moses is fearful to confront the Pharaoh. In spite of this fear, he moves forward.
Chapter 20 continues with Moses working through fear in different trials and challenges, eventually receiving the declaration that God is “forgiving towards those who repent, believe, do righteous deeds, and stay on the right path” [Quran 20:82]. This text beautifully mirrors one of the central prayers in the Jewish High Holiday liturgy: T’shuvah (repentance), T’fillah (prayer), and Tzedakah (justice) are held up as a powerful tool to “transform the harshness of our decree” no matter how harsh the circumstances.
Collectively these texts give us models for harnessing courage together as we confront our fears. Repentance requires us to broaden our perspectives to face the ways we have contributed to the pain of others and to repair those relationships. Prayer, belief, and reflection help us keep faith during trying times and allow our intentions to truly sink in–.. [pullquote] When we clarify and broaden our perspectives, we see beyond our own immediate fears, allowing us to address the injustices we see there. As we heal our relationship to God and ourselves, as we repair our relationships with the people closest to us, as we reach out and to work toward justice in the communities we inhabit together, we ultimately create and reinforce the safety net that will hold us all, transforming our fear into a catalyst for change.
[/pullquote]When we clarify and broaden our perspectives, we see beyond our own immediate fears, allowing us to address the injustices we see there. As we heal our relationship to God and ourselves, as we repair our relationships with the people closest to us, as we reach out and to work toward justice in the communities we inhabit together, we ultimately create and reinforce the safety net that will hold us all, transforming our fear into a catalyst for change.
May this be a year in which we, like the midwives, have the courage to look past our immediate fears and use our newfound perspectives to give birth to justice and righteousness. As we reach out, may our relationships with one another as Muslims and Jews sustain and support us, and allow us to reach out past our communities. May we remember the mother and daughter on the subway– keeping them in our hearts– working through our fear so that we may contribute to a safer and more secure world for all.
May we all have a deeply meaningful and transformative fast.
Andrea Hodos and Aziza Hasan are colleagues at NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership For Change. An organization dedicated to transforming community through the power of relationship
Aziza Hasan has been part of the NewGround team for a decade and currently serves as the executive director. Aziza’s work has been featured on Ozy, Yahoo News, MSN.com, Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith” with Krista Tippett, the Unites States Institute for Peace, Arabic Radio and Television, the LA Times, the Jewish Journal and InFocus.
Andrea Hodos In 2014-15, was a Fellow at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, Andrea was part of the Two Faiths One Prayer Changemaker initiative. Subsequently, she joined the NewGround staff, currently as the Program Co-Director where she facilitates the High School Leadership Council and the adult Changemaker cohorts annually.