Don’t let fear block your heart from love

“Take good care of yourself.” A common phrase with different implications, depending on the context. If we look further, the question becomes what is “the self” — which aspect of you needs attention, and how do you take care of it?
When it comes to physical health, for example, taking care of yourself may mean giving your body what it needs to be strong — making sure to exercise, eating healthy and getting the proper amount of rest and recuperation.
Taking care of yourself mentally entails avoiding negative thinking patterns, being patient with perceived shortcomings — not being too “hard on yourself” and choosing to stay away from toxic characters or activities.
There is an ongoing relationship, an interaction born of tension, whereby one part of us nurtures, neglects or harms another part.
William Faulkner, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, mentioned “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Jewish mystical teachings describe this inborn conflict in a broader context, not only as a split within the heart, but as a struggle between two distinct souls inside us, each vying for control over our consciousness, feelings and actions.
In this context, when speaking of a relationship with the “yourself,” the person can look at the godly soul inside with great pain and compassion, realizing how through ignorance or unwise decisions, the most powerful and sublime spark was dragged through the mud, roughed up and suffocated — the imposed environment of a personal exile and prickly path that, if understood properly, would never have been chosen, yet in the long run (after the fact) is paved with lessons and unique opportunities for redemption.
Imagine witnessing an innocent child, who you are entrusted to care for, being beaten up or treated unfairly. You feel sadness, anger and outrage. So too, many of the experiences and emotional traumas people endure, from the moment the soul is thrust into an unfamiliar setting, leave their mark. Much of our drive and ambition — even “standing up for yourself” — is a form of protecting that child inside us who carries memories of the psychological blows and cuts that parents, instructors, peers or the larger world has thrown over the years.
And so, we arrive at the most auspicious time of the Jewish year for repair and new and better beginnings. Superficially, the current buzz words of teshuvah (repentance) and kaparah (atonement) are all about wiping the slate clean, seeking forgiveness from people and from G-d. But, within the broader spiritual framework, these holidays are just as much about reaching a new level of thinking — how we view and relate to ourselves.
In developing our own self-awareness, we automatically discover habits that are totally unworthy of us or decisions that conflict with what we truly value. In this sense, honest introspection can be a tricky maze of memories and emotions. We must tread a fine line between being too frivolous and easily forgiving oneself, dismissing damaging actions with excuses, or holding oneself accountable — a cathartic regret that also allows for letting go afterward, without carrying along the shame or guilt.
The beautiful facet of teshuvah (literally “returning”) and this day of kaparah (“cleansing”) is that whenever you sincerely go through it, it’s done; it counts—even if there will be a relapse.
Yom Kippur is about reconnecting to ideals to fulfill our unique potential. But reconnecting requires change, an internal elevation and willpower. Change begins in the heart. The heart is naturally untamed, always running from place to place, one scene to another, wavering between holy and harmful attractions.
We face critical decisions throughout the day. The power to choose freely stems from a deep level of the soul, but there are two conscious emotions that make tough choices easier.
The mainstay of the “heart” — our emotions and character traits — begins with love and fear. Love drives you to move closer. Fear pulls you away. The natural undeveloped soul applies its power of love to physical pursuits and gratification. Likewise, fear manifests as fear of failure, financial loss, dreading social rejection and so forth.
Inside the rival soul, however, these same traits of love and fear are applied differently. Loves propels us to give, to do good. Fear (of consequences) keep us from doing something immoral or destructive, even when, in the moment, we are pulled toward it.
Throughout the Torah, cultivating these two main emotions in our relationship with G-d is stressed time and again. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask of you? Only that you FEAR the Lord your G-d and LOVE Him (Devarim 10:12)”
The lowest level of fear is anticipation of the consequences — worrying about harm to oneself.
A higher fear is blended within the emotion of love — when you love something enough, you automatically are afraid to be separated from it. In spiritual terms, all sin separates—affecting our soul connection through the display of disloyalty.
Healthy fear, the antidote, comes from the awareness of G-d’s presence, wherein this consciousness creates humility and prevents rash decisions. A more sophisticated development in the emotion is when fear merges to become awe, the overwhelming sense of being minuscule within the face of a much grander force, a feeling that naturally inspires a healthy mix of regret, embarrassment and renewed loyalty — and we are in “the Days of Awe.”
In this era, where spiritual movements and philosophies are explored almost like a hobby or trend, there is plenty of love to go around. Fear, on the other hand, is often misunderstood, looked at as “old school,” or some primitive view of a punitive deity. But in Jewish view, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. (Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 9:10)”
This type of fear is not simply watching your back or wondering “what will happen to me?” It stems from an awareness of where we stand. Its taking that same natural emotion and directing it where it belongs: to the primary mover of the universe, the source of life.
In kabalistic terminology, fear and love are the two wings that lift us beyond the animal world. Embracing love without fear, or vice versa, the soul attempts to soar with only one wing.
The deeper accomplishment during these “Days of Awe” is removing the blockage over the heart and soul to reveal the latent love and fear. Being able to feel healthy emotions is itself a gift, but this gift only comes as a response to our toil during these times—through teshuvah (regret and resolve), tefillah (prayer and attachment), tzedakah (charity and community work)—determining the fruitfulness in all areas for the coming year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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