March 3, 2023

Each of us has experienced a moment of fear. Whether it was being afraid to get out on a high ropes course for fear of falling (me, secret, I love it now!), or the fear of going through surgery with the unknown of what may come to be, or getting behind the wheel after a car accident. So many of us have faced our fears and we have paused because we weren’t ready to move forward, or we have stepped into the darkness not knowing what the future will hold. We have been successful and we have learned from that moment of hesitation.

The dictionary defines courage as having the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. In Judaism, courage or ometz-lev in Hebrew is described by scholar and Mussar (system of working on one’s virtues) teacher Alan Morinis, who teaches us that having a strong heart boldly pictures what is right and what is called for, without succumbing to anxiety or fear about one’s own safety or benefit. When Moses passes on the leadership to Joshua, he blesses him by saying “Hazak v’ematz,” be strong and of good courage. It is interesting that in Judaism the word for courage is linked to the word for heart. The heart is a muscle that is the source of life and in our tradition, not just a center for emotions, but also the compass that drives our moral direction, this is not the mind. Medically speaking we know the heart is a muscle that literally pumps life to the body. It also guides the soul to do what is right. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the modern Mussar movement who lived in the 19th century taught, “Let the God-fearing people take courage and conquer evil. What can stop them?” His devout belief in God empowered him to recognize the divine force that worked through him which would give him the strength to act. He knew that his commitment to God, the source of his moral thinking, would guide him to act when encountering evil.

With the idea of courage in mind, I think of Esther and our Purim story. It took courage for Esther to approach the King and shed light on the impact of Haman’s evil decree. Esther called on the people to support her and pray for her before she moved forward. She drew on the strength of her people to act and do what was right. Ultimately, however, she had to go to the King, open the door to his throne room, and speak words of truth despite knowing that she could have been punished by death. Esther is a lesson on moral courage to do what is right in the face of evil.

I recall the moments when I have worked for justice. Standing up on the stage at the Nehemiah Action in front of thousands asking for a million dollars to support mental health initiatives in Franklin County. After being repeatedly told no, we persisted. I found the courage to go forward. Week after week I see our B’nai Mitzvah kids act courageously when they stand up in front of family and friends, especially peers, lead Hebrew prayers and share their insights into Torah. For a 13-year-old that is courage, because embarrassment is akin to social death.

As we enter this Shabbat, I ask you to think about the moments in your life when you showed courage – starting cancer treatment, walking into your boss’ office because of challenges at work, going into an IEP meeting with your kids’ school, anything at all… how can you move forward?

Alan Morinis offers two practices to strengthen the courage muscle. He invites us to “undertake the thing you could have done or should have done, and now will do, through strength of heart.” This tells me that we should rehearse it in our minds, repeatedly. Maybe roleplay the conversation, do what we can to move forward. He also suggests, “doing the right thing without fear of consequences.” Maybe we either don’t think about the consequences when we know we are acting with our moral integrity, or we worry about them later. Engaging in these types of practices helps strengthen the courage muscle. As we think of Esther this Purim, let us remember her courage and be inspired to act as she did!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rick Kellner