September 18, 2019

Need Spiritual Bravery? Transforming Fear to Joy!

Once we can identify and understand our emotions we can transform our inner world.

We all have to face adversity in our lives. Sometimes it makes us, sometimes it breaks us. The Kotzker Rebbe explained that Abraham “never came off the mountain” after the binding of Isaac. This is to say, that the incident was so traumatic that he never recovered from the challenge, even though he persevered countless other tests.

When confronted with situations that strike fear in us, we must desire perseverance, we must directly look at our fear and, most importantly, we must shift our perspectives of the past and of our current selves. This is not easy work.

Joan Borysenko, in Fire in the Soul, describes three types of courage we must develop when encountering challenges in life:

1.     Willful courage – cultivating the will to function in spite of fear.

2.     Psychological courage – willingness to be honest, to face old pain, and to become one’s true self.

3.     Spiritual courage – learning to transform moments of fear into states of love and joy (seeking the sacred within the mundane and difficult aspects of life)

The Chassidic masters taught that we must take the negative energy inside of us and channel it toward good. Too often we think we must destroy their negative emotion. Worse, we can convince ourselves that by feeling negative emotions we are in some way doing something productive. In fact, this choice makes everything worse. When we feel fear or despair, we must channel that energy toward just and holy means. When human beings oppress others, God is alienated from the universe! It is through our redemptive acts of love & justice that we bring God back into the world; on the moral playing field the spiritual universe is constructed. There is so much at stake and we must get our emotional intelligence and leadership right.

Our most prevalent fear is that of death. The rabbis wanted us to face this fear head-on.

Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, “Know where you have come from – a putrid drop; and where you are going – to a place of dust, vermin, and worms; and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting and reckoning – the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, (Ethics of the Fathers 3:1).

To be honest about our fear, we have to look at it directly and understand what it triggers within us. We must hold those emotions, not be held by them. When we externalize them and hold them, we can manipulate them.

Many try to distract themselves from their concerns as if they will just disappear. We must often live in tension and not merely dismiss the sources of our anxiety. But embracing emotional paradox is only the authentic path when we have made ourselves vulnerable enough to experience the full emotional intensity of (and truly existed within) both extremes before resigning to sustained tension. To be transformative, it can’t just be an intellectual exercise where we remain in a safe and equivocal place.

Many look to change their location when things aren’t going right. We often assume one’s location determines one’s mental state. On vacation, one is happy; at work one is unhappy; at home one is rested. But, a change of location actually does little to change one’s mental state. The Talmudic teaching “Change your location, change your luck” was rather aspirational. Our states of being will shift when we shift our inner world.

Often to allay fears, we look toward external comforts. Rav Kook taught, however, that this is dangerous, that we must rather turn toward the work of our inner perfection; we cannot dodge our inner world (Midot haRe’iya).

Dr. Martin Luther King was a prime example of someone who worked to transform his inner world and to transform his fears into sources of vision and joy. On April 3rd, the night before his assassination, Dr. King spoke these prophetic words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land…  I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Each of us is more than capable of overcoming enormous challenges. It makes us grow as people, sets our souls aflame, and lets us conquer our latent doubts and fears. These challenges can transform into incredible opportunities that allow for spiritual growth and accomplishment.

Kahlil Gibran, a poet and philosopher, called pain “the bitter pill of the inner physician,” a sort of wake-up call from a tough world that “breaks the shell of our understanding.” Revelations can emerge in our lives when we break these shells hiding our true selves. We can wake up to new dimensions of joy in our lives.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”