I Fear Therefore I Am

Yoni A. Dahlen
September 28, 2012
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“Faithful little friends and neighbors,

For no wintry wind or rain,

Household cares or airy pastimes,

Can my loving birds restrain.

Other friends forget, or linger,

But each day I surely know

That my doves will come and leave here

Little footprints in the snow.”

-Louisa May Alcott, from “My Doves”

I fear therefore I am.  Though Descartes did not call for this addendum to his famous ontological statement, we are blinded to the essence of human nature without the acknowledgment of life at its most primal, at its most vulnerable.  Before we think, before we reason, we fear.  In the great condition of life, we learn first to tremble, certain only of our uncertainty.  Each step, regardless of weight or direction, is a step towards the unknown, and in the unknown, we are confronted with the terrifying presence of our mortality.

In the shadow of the Days of Awe, this awareness reaches its zenith, and it is here in the darkness that our everyman, Yonah son of Amittai, of the city of Gath-Hepher, offers us a mirror to see ourselves as we truly are – not as the pitiless worm of the philosophers but as a yonah, a dove.  As doves, we are equipped to navigate the darkness, and as doves, we know only one truth amidst our fears and reservations, to return home.  In his beautiful novel, A Pigeon and a Boy, the Israeli author Meir Shalev expounds on the nature of doves through the dialogue of a British soldier and a young pigeon handler, “They do not know to find the way to anywhere but their own loft … finding one’s way home–how shall I put it young man?–is like obeying the laws of gravity which we all do anyway.  Like a river knows the way to the sea without maps, like a tossed stone is not in need of a compass to return to the earth.”

To return home.  Yet, as Yonah’s wayward flight from Tarshish and Nineva shows us, the journey is demanding and filled with pain.  Often we fly with clipped wings.  We are weathered by the storms of life’s tossing sea, thrown from the boats of security or crippled by the unbearable heat of injustice and cruelty.  Yet home remains the pulse within us, the natural rhythm of forward, always forward.

In fear and trembling the laments of Yonah awake within us an obligation far from an annual right or tradition.  Our coming home does not begin at Rosh Chodesh Elul nor does it end with Yom Kippur.  During these days of awe, we lie within the belly of the fish.  We cry out with the sounds of tekia and terurah not to be saved from the road ahead, but to weep and plead our longings to simply continue home.  We quake with fear, yet our pulse continues to beat.  Forward, always forward.

We fear, and because we fear, our existence is confirmed.  May we use this fear during these Days of Awe to celebrate our journeys thus far, to prepare for the difficult travels ahead, and to weep with thanksgiving for the beautiful pulse that beats under our wings.  May we fly together through the darkness, for we are doves, and as doves we know only one truth, that we must return home.

“So, they teach me the sweet lesson,

That the humblest may give

Help and hope, and in so doing,

Learn the truth by which we live;

For the heart that freely scatters

Simple charities and loves,

Lures home content, and joy, and peace,

Like a soft-winged flock of doves.”[1]


[1] ibid

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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