The Kenai Peninsula juts out in a wedge from the Alaskan mainland. Beyond Kenai is Kodiak Island, home to some of the largest grizzlies in North America. If you gaze west from the right spot at the top of one of Kenai's mountains, and you let your imagination drift with the wind and the waves, it can seem as though you are standing at the edge of the world.
I once stood in that place. It was the summer of 1989, and in a couple of months I would be moving to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school. What was a nice Jewish boy like me doing on a mountain in the middle of nowhere? The community I would soon serve felt very far away at that moment and offered me little in the way of spiritual nourishment.
I'd left for Alaska in June and taken the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. Denali is known for its physical beauty and its plentiful wildlife. I made my way inside the park, eventually discovering a narrow stream that cut along the base of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. Drawn by its beautiful setting, I followed the stream for about a mile, flanked on each side by snow-capped mountains and Arctic tundra. I offered a prayer, feeling as if I were standing in some immense temple, replete with white pillars and green carpets.
The day was clear and the air cool. I passed caribou and Dall sheep as ptarmigans darted across my path. I entered a thicket, stomped through it into a clearing, and stopped dead in my tracks.
At first it looked like a fuzzy golden ball, a mound of bronze shimmering in the summer sun. But this ball had legs--four of them--and as it lumbered toward me, I quickly came to realize that the fuzz was really fur, and that the object wasn't a ball, but a bear. A grizzly bear.
I can't describe what darted through my body as the distance between the two of us shrank, because it was beyond words. All I had at that instant was a sensation, raw, primal, and almost as palpable as the sound of the brush as it crunched under the grizzly's paws. If I had to choose a name for it, I'd call it fear. Naked, unbridled fear.
In classical Jewish thought, it is only after one has experienced the fear of God that life gains complete clarity, that a person fully and finally understands his or her place in the cosmic whole. Standing there, scared, vulnerable, and alone, in the presence of a being far more powerful and attuned to nature than I could ever hope to be, gave me a hint of what it must be like to behold the Divine Presence, to experience a brief, mystical, life-altering flash of transcendence. There is an inscription above the Holy Ark in a great many synagogues around the world: "Know before Whom you stand." But there are times in our lives when such an admonition seems unnecessary.
I had stepped back into the food chain. I felt terror, but I also felt a strange sort of reverence. As if the threat of being eaten alive were somehow tempered by the knowledge that if it occurred, it would occur not as some random or malicious act, but as an enactment of some grand and mysterious design. This was a situation that was beyond good and evil, beyond even reason.
Don't run. Don't stare into the bear's eyes. Keep it in your peripheral vision. Do nothing to excite the grizzly's predatory instinct, but get the hell out of there. Walk swiftly but calmly. Put as much distance as possible between yourself and the bear. I did everything I'd read that a person should do in the event of a bear encounter, but as the grizzly began following me, all my thoughts and strategies began to melt into a kind of white heat. I still had the residue of a mind, enough to keep my legs moving and my lungs filled with air, but for the first time in my life, I was all body. Just a sack of blood and bones. A moveable feast.
Denali was tundra--it had no trees. There was nowhere to escape to, nowhere to hide. With the grizzly still on my tail, I spotted a dirt road off in the distance. Turning at a 120-degree angle away from the bear (a young male that probably weighed several hundred pounds) so as to maximize the separation between the two of us, I made my way toward the road. Perhaps it would lead me to better shelter.
The bear followed me. My heart was beating so fast, it felt as if it would burst. Though I saw it indirectly, too afraid to look at it face-to-face, that grizzly had more raw presence than my own soul. Lifting my feet felt like lifting manhole covers. When I finally reached the road, I discovered two cameramen and a Jeep. The three of us jumped inside the vehicle just as the bear closed in. Something inside me snapped. Or was freed. I'm safe! Alive! Exhilaration and gratitude--even a vague, objectless feeling of love--began to replace fear and trembling.
How does the experience of confronting a wild animal relate to God? Whether it takes the form of awe, reverence, or terror, fear is often an integral part of spirituality. Sometimes fear precedes spiritual experience, sometimes it accompanies it, and sometimes it is the residue the event leaves behind. When we brush up against something that is far greater than us, something that almost defies our comprehension, it is not always a pleasant experience. The same can be true when we encounter the ultimate transcendent force, God. We may become distressed and scared. We may feel powerless and vulnerable. But fear can still play an important role in our inner lives. Whether we fear bears, commitments, or death, that fear is only the outer garment for something deeper within it. Maybe even something holy.
Although there are an unlimited number of fears a human being can experience during a lifetime, all of them share a single but invisible root: the fear of God. Whatever we may think we fear, the real source of our dread and anxiety is ultimately our own humanity, our inability to control our destinies, our finitude in the face of God's infinity. A spirituality that utilizes fear as a springboard for inner growth is not about succumbing to it, but about seeing through it. If we are ready, if we are spiritually mature, this insight should lead not to despair, but to liberation and enlightenment. As the Bible clearly states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10).