We all know the joke about the classic text message from a Jewish mother: "Start worrying. Details to follow."
The truth is there is much to worry about these days:
Worried about the economy and inflation
Worried about hurricanes and the weather
Worried about covid and other health challenges
Worried about Israel and its enemies
Worried about the increase of Anti-Semitism
Worried about the divisiveness and polarization in this country
And of course, worried about Rosh Hashana and yamim noraim. Some are worried about coming before Hashem in judgment and others worried about their seat, who will they be near, will they have an aisle or a middle, and yet others worried about how long the rabbi will speak.
We have so many things to be worried, anxious and afraid of regularly and especially this time of year. You would have thought if we offered a prayer about worry and fear it would be to relieve us of our worries, to bring calm and peace, and yet we do the opposite.
Beginning Monday night, we will introduce an expression into our prayers –
ובכן תן פחדך, please Hashem instill fear within us. Rav Soloveitchik describes that one year, an eminent psychiatrist said to him, fear is a major cause of mental illness, we should work to be free of fear, worry and anxiety, not be praying for more of it.
He answered: Everyone is struggling with a fear. Some are afraid they won’t succeed in their careers, others about losing their wealth, other about status or prominence. Some are afraid of sickness, others are afraid of heights, public speaking or the weather. Said Rav Soloveitchik, I am not a psychiatrist, but I do know that one major source of fear can wipe out all of these lesser fears and that is yiras shomayim, fear of Hashem. We daven that we see, feel, are in awe of, and yes fear of Hashem and that our fear of Hashem overtakes and uproots all other fears that lurk everywhere and upset our lives.
There are essentially two types of anxiety and worry. We worry over things not in our control, because they aren’t in our control. We worry about illness, weather, traffic, delayed flights and more. Then there are things we worry about, specifically because they are in our control. For some, having free will is both liberating and terrifying at the same time. We worry about how well we will perform; will we execute, meet expectations, surpass them, or fall short of them. Can we endure and handle whatever comes our way? What if we fail?
We need to silence both voices of worry and it starts with believing we can. As I shared a few weeks ago, when those thoughts come and knock, firstly, we can decide if we let them in. And we can by choosing to replace these negative and anxious thoughts with confident and positive ones.
We are in the final days of the month of Elul, a month dedicated to getting us ready for the new year. We have heard many insights and divrei Torah based on the acronym Elul and the pesukim it stands for. But there is another significance of the word Elul. When read backwards it spellsלולא , which means “if not,” or “if it weren’t for.” The word לולא only appears one place in the Chumash.
When the brothers are trying to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin with them back down to Yosef so that he would release Shimon, they appeal to him by saying:
כִּ֖י לוּלֵ֣א הִתְמַהְמָ֑הְנוּ כִּֽי־עַתָּ֥ה שַׁ֖בְנוּ זֶ֥ה פַעֲמָֽיִם׃
“For we could have been there and back twice if we had not dawdled.”
Rashi explains, “we would have already come back with Shimon and you would not have had this anxiety all these days.” Lulei is associated with anxiety, with what if, what could have been, what will be.
There is another לולא, not in Chumash but in Tehillim, and we say it every day of Elul. לולא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־ְה׳ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים - Had I not believed in you Hashem and that I would enjoy your goodness…
We can quiet our worry by exchanging one לולא for the other. Instead of feeling lulei this and lulei that, if only this and what will be with that, we need to work on feelingלולא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־ְה׳, seeing, feeling Hashem in our lives, knowing all is orchestrated from above, there is an infinite, omnipotent one choreographing our lives.
But what about the worry when it comes to ourselves and how well we will perform?
The Torah tells us that when we start to panic and feel that getting done what needs to get done or being who we need to be is as far away as the heavens, on the other side of the ocean, we need to know כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. Hashem doesn’t ask for anything that is beyond us. Yes, we will come before Him Monday night, we will be asked to reflect and holds ourselves accountable. But the very fact that He is mocheil v’soleiach, forgiving and forbearing should itself be reassuring and encouraging.
The Slonimer Rebbe says that those who panic with anxiety over appearing on Rosh Hashana before the Heavenly court are picturing the court as occupied with harsh, cruel judges. But we need to know the judge is in fact our Father. He understands our struggles and He wants our success. The Tur says that unlike others who are anxious in judgment, wear black, don’t shave, can’t eat, we wear beautiful white clothing, eat and drink are festive because our judgment day is a yom tov, it is the day we come before our Father.
So, it turns out that there is literally nothing to worry about. Mark Twain once said 'I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.' Studies show that over 85% of the things we worry about don’t ever happen. And as far as the 15% that do, worrying never made them go away, never made them better and never did anything other than compromise our own health and happiness.
Stop worrying by remembering that Elul is לולא האמנתי, all that happens is meant to be and we have what it takes to deal with whatever comes our way. So don’t ruin what is left of this year; remember, don’t worry - be happy.