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Transforming the Fear of Death

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

These last years have been immensely challenging for me as my body has been experiencing its inevitable decline and I feel myself moving inexorably toward death. At times I have been wrapped in fear. What will become of this person I am? Will my “I” continue in some other form? Or will it simply dissolve into the enigma out of which it arose?

I entered into the spirit of these past High Holy Day season reflecting on these questions, asking my inner guidance for some way to deal with this fear. A few days later I received this answer: “Embrace life fully; embrace death fully.” As I reflected on this response my thoughts went back to a teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s that I first encountered over a decade ago, a process for the transformation of fear. I returned to that teaching and examined it to see if the master’s perspective could aid me in my present plight. And, indeed, it offered me a perspective that I find exceedingly valuable.

The Ba’al Shem spoke about two types of yirah, a word that is most often translated as “fear,” and sometimes as “awe.” The Besht calls the first kind of yirah “outer fear,” (yirah hitzonit). This is the existential fear or terror experienced by all living beings when they undergo extreme pain or face utter annihilation. How is one to deal with such raw fear? The Ba’al Shem states that there are two spiritual steps that need to be taken to move beyond this fear.

The first step is an enlargement of one’s outlook. The Besht suggests that the seeker step outside of his or her own body and consciousness and attempt to see the issue from a more universal perspective. If I am able to do this I become aware that my small self is only a particular cell in the body of this vast amazing universe. The cycle of my own birth, life and death is a single instance of a great archetypal phenomenon, for every creation in the cosmos is bound to go through such a process. If I can learn to identify with and accept this process I become amazed at the awesomeness of existence as a whole and I am astonished that I have been privileged to be part of both its joys and its suffering for the span of my life.  Such an expansion of consciousness allows me to begin to transform my personal or outer fears into what the Besht calls “inner awe,” (yirah peninit).

In my experience the transformation of external fear into inner awe comes about through my meditation practice, which enables me to detach myself from identification with both my body and my individualized consciousness and frees me to recognize that I am one with the fullness of Existence [HaVaYaH] itself.

The final challenge, the Besht tells us, is moving from yirah (awe) to ahavah (love). This requires the individual to surrender to the divine and to fully accept the inevitable. It was this call that I heard from my inner guidance: “Embrace life fully; embrace death fully.”

And what is this awe that has become love? It is the single Love that binds all things together. It is love for an Existence filled with pain as well as joy. It is a Love that tenderly embraces our smaller fearful selves. A Love that assures us, “It will be okay . . . death is no enemy.”

I recently listened to a fascinating interview with the Zen teacher, Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi, who is suffering from neuropathy, cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. In the interview, Jun Po calls attention to a number of points that I found in the thought of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He calls for radical self-acceptance. He states that witnessing one’s dying in an expanded state of consciousness is amazing. And he says that out of this “your heart breaks open into unconditional love.” The interview is entitled, “Falling in Love With Death.”

This insight dovetails with a conviction that the psychologist, Viktor Frankel came to while he was incarcerated in Auschwitz: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I cannot alter the process of aging. I cannot jettison my medical problems. I cannot avoid death. Yet I still have the ability to choose my attitude toward the fears that sometimes ambush me. I don’t have to be a victim.

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