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FOMO is a Real Thing

Yom Kippur Morning 5780


Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

On this Yom Kippur I wish to speak about the inner life. In particular I want to talk about fear.
It is real. It is pervasive. We are frightened by a resurgent antisemitism. And to be sure, I
spent plenty of time talking about antisemitism and how we might battle it on Rosh Hashanah.
We are afraid of terrorism and wonder where the next attack might be. 9-11’s wounds still run
deep. Our children are terrified by climate change and speak about the rising of the oceans as
if it’s already happening here on Long Island. Our parents are nervous about the economy and
watch the stock indexes as if their very next meal depended on it. We are nervous about our
children getting into college or getting into too much trouble when they are away at college or
later, traveling by themselves throughout this broken world or then finding a job that they will
find fulfilling and meaningful. We read about the latest threats to our health, which medicines
might cause cancer and which habits might shorten our years. We are afraid of strangers and
time after time, decide we would rather go out with trusted friends rather than going
someplace new and meeting new people. Need I go on—again? There is an endless list. Each
of us could add plenty of items to the compilation. Each of us carries a host of fears in our
hearts. And, I could on this Yom Kippur day explore any one of these challenges, and fears.
That is not my intention. Instead I wish instead to speak to how are we going to manage this
fear. I wish to continue the discussion we began on Rosh Hashanah evening. Where are we
going to place these overwhelming fears? How are we going to move forward without being
consumed by them? How can we no longer be ruled by our terrors?

Our tradition offers some guidance. That, as you might expect, would of course by my
perspective. It stands to reason that a rabbi would think Judaism has the answers. Let’s first
examine these days, called Yamim Noraim, days of awe. But the Hebrew word for awe, yirah is
the same as it is for fear. These days could also be translated as days of terror. There are any
number of our prayers that invoke fear. “On Rosh Hashanah this is written, on the fast of Yom
Kippur this is sealed, how many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it,
who will live and who will die…” Thank God the cantor sings this prayer to an upbeat tune.
“B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” (And thank God the cantor sings it rather than me.) The music is
an antidote to the prayer’s literal meaning. Do we even believe such words, “…who by fire and
who by water, who by war and who by beast, who by earthquake and who by plague…”? Are
they meant to frighten?

According to legend this Unetanah Tokef prayer was authored Rabbi Amnon, an eleventh
century Jewish leader living in Mainz, Germany, who was brutally tortured and martyred. Prior
to his death, during these very days, he offered these words, “Unenatanah tokef kedushat
hayom.” And that, quite frankly, just makes this prayer all the more frightening. “B’rosh
hashanah yikateivun…” And that of course brings me to one answer of how we should confront

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fear. Sing! Sing loudly. Clap your hands and dance. I’m not saying ignore the terrors. But
music has a way of healing. It has a way of even banishing fear or at the very least helping us to
forget them for a little while.

No rabbi exemplifies this more than the Hasidic giant, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. He was the
great grandson of the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. If you have been to Israel, his
followers are those hippie like youth who park their colorful van with large speakers on top,
and sing and dance wildly on Ben Yehuda’s streets. Their goal is to allow God’s magnificence to
overwhelm all other worries. You can’t get too afraid if you are dancing. Yirah, fear, must be
understood as awe. They might even argue that fear of God is a good thing, and a good fear. If
that terrifying Unetanah Tokef prayer motivates you to do good, to correct your wrongs and do
better, then what’s wrong with that kind of fear? It can be motivating. It can even be edifying.
But that’s not how I like to do things—not the dancing part—but the fear as a motivation part.
Then again if that’s how the right thing gets done the tradition will take it. Personally, I prefer
to understand yirah as awe and to try to infuse as much of life with the feeling of “that’s
awesome.” Sometimes it does require a good deal of singing and most especially dancing.
That’s the medicine. You have to get out there and move.

Among Rabbi Nachman’s most famous sayings is: “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar maod, v’haikar
lo l’fached klal—the whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be
afraid.” It seems that Nachman did not just sing and dance. He was not oblivious to fear. The
world does not always appear so wonderful. Sometimes it is constraining. At times it is
narrowing. Summon the strength and walk forward. Do not be afraid. Easier said than done,
Nachman. Sometimes we want to just curl up and not even look at that bridge. Sometimes we
just want to turn around and walk in a different direction.

We walk the other way most especially when asked to meet new people. We would rather just
hang out with friends. We would rather just go out with people we have known for years. It
feels—well, safer. Judaism urges us to love our neighbor. V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha. But how
many of us actually even know everyone who lives on our block? What about the people living
down the street? How about those who live on the other side of town? How often have we
actually struck up a conversation with someone standing in line next to us? Love the neighbor.
But they could be different. They could even be dangerous. I get it. The Hebrew word for
neighbor has embedded within the word for evil, rah. It’s a fine line. They could be strange.
They could have ideas different from our own. And so, we retreat to known acquaintances.
We withdraw to like-minded conversations.

Nothing has injured the bonds that can be made between neighbors, between those standing
right by our side than that thing we clutch most tightly in our hands as if it is a lifeline. I am
talking about the cellphone. We stand in line, with our earbuds in our ears, talking to friends
miles away. We text people who may in fact be on the other side of the world but miss out on

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making a new friend who could be standing by our side. The world, and its myriad of people,
and its possibilities for new friends and new discoveries, await us, but we scroll through
Instagram photos posted by well tested friends or to make sure we have not missed out on
some big event or some gathering. “Really Jenna was invited to that party. How come I
wasn’t?” Snap a sad face to some of your friends to make sure they also were left out. It’s
crushing. Look up. The sun is still shining. The sky is blue. Put on a song. Start tapping your
feet and dance. Talk to the person standing next to you.

There is a fear that is driving all this. And it is called FOMO. Yes, my young students, you
thought I was not paying attention. Fear of Missing Out seems to drive much of what we do.
And it is real. I am not all suggesting, nor do I believe, that we should get rid of our iPhones.
But we have to figure out how to use them and how not to be so dependent on them. They are
extraordinary innovations. Who can imagine navigating traffic without Google Maps or doing
homework without Google Translate? Who can imagine not being able to text or WhatsApp
someone regardless of the time zone they are in? Then again try talking some more to the
person who sits by your side, in the same time zone. For all the connectedness the cellphone
provides we now recognize it causes a great deal of loneliness. And that is because people
need connections in real time. People need words spoken to them and spoken with them.
They need to look at each other when they are trying to say something really important, or
something really difficult, like “I’m sorry.”

I have a crazy idea, albeit an old fashioned one, but one that I most especially hope my young
students heed. As opposed to taking so many selfies of yourself in this place or that, text your
friend the following words “I can’t wait to see you and tell you about this beautiful place I am
visiting right now or this amazing experience I am having right now.” And then are you ready
for this, when you see them, use your words to paint a picture of that place or that experience.
Try doing that without scrolling through your photo roll. Because then you can fill in the
nuance, the good moments as well as the bad. Have you ever seen my Facebook feed? It’s
only pictures of me smiling, as well as of course a lot of blog posts and articles that I find
thought provoking. Those pictures are all curated happiness. They’re just snippets of laughter
and smiles. That’s not all there is to life. But this is what we do now. We accumulate “smile for
the picture” snapshots and then what do we do next. We delete every picture from the photo
roll that is not perfectly flattering.

That’s not real life. Reality is when you sit down with a friend and you talk about the good and
the bad; it’s when you tell stories; it’s when you hug and when you hold people close. It’s when
you open your heart to meeting new people and learning from other people. There have been
recent studies that indicate the iPhone suppresses compassion. One study even found that
when people are sitting around a table together, but leave their phones on that same table,
their empathy and concern for others are diminished. I am just as guilty as the next person.

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“Why hasn’t Ari texted back? Oh my God. I hope he’s ok.” It’s been…five minutes already. I
better check Find my Friends.

There is a world of people, friends and neighbors and even strangers, who are waiting to be
listened to and learned from. And here is another idea and this one might be even more
radical. Try leaving your phone at home for at least one hour on Shabbat, on Saturday. I’m not
suggesting that we should start not using electricity and begin walking to shul on the Sabbath
day. Just try this idea. And then, without your phone in tow, but instead, a friend by your side,
go for a walk and just talk. Or go outside, even by yourself, in God’s big, beautiful world and
take it in. Breath deep. Now you might miss out on taking a picture of a beautiful sunset, or
even of a rainbow, or you might miss taking a picture of someone doing something really funny
that you wish you could Snap to a friend, but that’s ok. Let those remain in your mind. File it
away in your memories rather than among all those Gigs of storage.

Shabbat is supposed to be vayinafash. It’s supposed to restore our souls. It’s supposed to
renew us. The tradition even suggests that we gain an extra soul on this day. Make use of it. If
we are always looking for the next best selfie or the funniest Snap, if we are always pining after
what we are missing out on, then there is no way we are going to enjoy where we are right
here and now. So, look up from your phones and pay attention. The cure for FOMO is the
person nearest you, the congregation sitting around you right now at this very moment. It’s
not on your screens.

We now know. This wonderful device may in fact cause more fear than connectedness. It is
deceptive. It seems like it connects us. I can talk to my kids no matter how far away they might
be. Then again, I am inundated with alerts on a constant basis. My phone lights up: “The
Supreme Court returns to a raft of polarizing cases…” and “Final: Eagles 31 Jets 6.” And I
become agitated every time an alert flashes. I could have read that in the next day’s paper. I
could have watched that on the evening news. I could have guessed the Jets would lose. Why
do I need to know that right now? Fear seeps in. We are harried by this constant barrage of
information. Will your fantasy league survive if you read the injury reports an hour later? Will
your friendship likewise survive if you don’t Snap a picture of your new outfit? You might be
surprised to hear this, but the answer is, yes. Everything will be ok. And you might be even
better for it. Instead listen to some music. Or practice for your bar or bat mitzvah or talk about
something important, or even something unimportant, with your family members. Or
commiserate with the person standing next to you, as opposed the friend far away and say, “Oh
God, those Jets.”

I’m not saying we should throw our phones in the garbage, or that you are going to see less
pictures of my big toothed smile on Instagram and Facebook, but I am saying we should lean on
our phones a lot less. Why? Because otherwise fear gnaws at you, persistent agitations creep
into your soul. There is a simple, albeit difficult, answer for banishing these fears. Rely less on

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that device you clutch so tightly in your hand. Rely more on the people by your side. Rely more
on the beautiful world that is outside your door. Rely less on all the information, and most
especially all those pictures, that come through on your phone. This fear thing is within your
grasp. You can get the best of it. Fear can be countered by trust. That is the root of the word
for faith—emunah. And trust cannot be fashioned by short, staccato text messages or by
smiling, Instagram photos. It is formed when you look into people’s eyes, when you hold them
when they are down, or dance with them when they are happy. That is trust. That is true
friendship. And that is what will banish all those fears.

The Jewish people have always placed hope before fear. We believe that tomorrow can be
better than yesterday. We hope for a better future. At times we placed that belief in a
messianic redeemer. At other times we placed that task in our own hands. But we have been
steadfast and have always held hope before our eyes. In fact, the great Talmudic sage, Rava,
ponders the questions God will ask us when we are welcomed into heaven. After asking, “Were
you ethical in your business practices,” God asks, “Tzapita l’yehushuah—did you hope for
salvation?” Did you have hope? We will be judged on whether or not we held fast to hope.
We will not be judged on whether we called out this enemy or that. We will not even be asked
were you a faithful friend. It’s all about hope. It’s all about pushing fear aside and placing hope
before our eyes. Judaism is about hope more than fear.

Back to Rebbe Nachman. I only just discovered that his famous aphorism about walking a
narrow bridge and not being afraid, the one that I grew up singing at summer camp, was really
written by a contemporary rabbi. The eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi actually said the
following: “Ha-adam tzaarich laavor et gesher tzaar maod maod. A person must cross a very,
very narrow bridge. V’haklal v’haikar shelo yitpachaid klal. But the most important rule is:
Don’t allow yourself to become afraid.” He did not say as I thought for so many years. “Do not
fear.” But instead, “Do not allow yourself to become afraid.” The world, Nachman was even
more keenly aware than I thought, is a frightening place, a very, very narrow bridge, but fear is
in our hands. Push it aside. Don’t let it take hold. Sing and dance more. Text and Instagram
less. Hold on to people more—even strangers. Be inspired and even overwhelmed with awe by
the world around you. Fill your heart with hope.

A concluding story. I wish to return to where we began these High Holidays. I look back again
to memories of the Holocaust. It is a story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn who like our Annie survived
Auschwitz. One winter evening, Gryn’s father called for him to come into a quiet corner of the
barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in
awe as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create
makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in the day’s miniscule
butter ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your butter. You need
those calories to survive. We could have even shared the butter on that measly crust of bread
they gave us. Instead you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and

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said, “My dear son. You and I have seen that it possible to live a very, very long time without
food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.”

Fear can take hold of our hearts. Our souls can become overwhelmed with all sorts of worries.
But we can regain mastery of our hearts. We can fill them with hope. All those Instagram
photos of meals, or of smiling faces, do not represent true sustenance. Our true sustenance is
hope. It’s actually the only thing that can sustain us and the only thing that can carry us
forward. But it cannot be seen. No brand-new iPhone 11 can capture it. It’s hidden, but it’s
just as real as all those fears. Fill your soul with hope. Carry it in your heart. Hold it fast.
Banish all your fears.

It can begin with a song or even a dance. It can start with a new friend. Hope is our only true
sustenance. And that sustenance is within reach. Grab hold. And banish all your fears.

Kein y’hi l’ratzon—may it be God’s will.