12 And now, Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d require of you, but to fear the L-rd your G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul (Devarim 10:12)
The fear of G-d is probably the most basic, irreducible element of religiosity in any religion. King Solomon said, “in summary, this is known: fear G-d and guard His commandments, because this is the totality of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This can be understood to mean that one can acquire as much information as he or she wants, and certainly King Solomon, described as the “wisest of all men” (see I Kings 3:12) had a broad knowledge base, but the essence of our existence is to develop the characteristic of יראה, yirah, or fear,
This is conveyed in the phrase, ראשית חכמה יראת השם, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d” (Proverbs 9:10)–an idea to that totally contradicts the contemporary notion of wisdom which is informed by scientific, mechanical materialism and its therapeutic counterpart, psychoanalysis. For this reason, being G-d-fearing in certain circles is a basis for the de-legitimization of one’s capacity for intellectual contribution. Freudians consider religiosity as a whole to be a neurosis! The image of the patient, logical genius who is amoral, doubting and objective, has been held in the mind’s eye as the person who is the trusted source of wisdom and sanity since the second half of the 19th century. The entire human historical record since then testifies to how horrific the ramifications of science and progress without the fear of G-d are.
The name of the holiest city in the world is a composite of its original name שלם (“Salem”, “perfection”) and the name given to it by Abraham, יראה (“He will see”, which is identical to the word “fear” as it is spelled, see Genesis 22:14). Together, these render a phrase which means “perfect fear”, Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).
The fear of G-d is generally conceived as a multi-dimensional mode of being, as follows (see the Ramchal’s Mesillat Yesharim): the first level is called yirat ha’onesh, fear of punishment, i.e. for the transgression of G-d’s commandments. This level of yirah, tends to evoke the most negative reaction amongst contemporary, educated people, many of whom view the concept of obedience from fear as a primitive and immature posture. But they are not alone; certain expressions within our own sources indicate that this level of relationship to G-d is primordial, whereas the service of G-d through love is a higher and more preferred level. To this, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov responded, “would that we would even reach this level!” At least a person would refrain from sinning if he or she had yirat ha’onesh. Let’s be honest; don’t we avoid double-parking because of the fine associated with it? If we think a little bit more deeply, we will realize that it is this level of fear that is required for the rule of government. It is the fear that motivates us to watch our own backs and avoid negative consequences.
The second level of the fear of G-d is called yirat haromemut, fear of the awesomeness of G-d. This type of consciousness is brought about through contemplation of the greatness of G-d compared to the lowliness and/or essential nothingness of man. What is a man, compared to the One Who created all of existence? This is the essence of the text that is read during the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “The life-span of man is like a fleeting shadow, a passing cloud, a puff of wind, and a momentary dream.” This level of fear, which is probably better expressed as awe, was articulated by Abraham, who said, “I am but dust and ashes”. This is the level of fear that indicates that we are aware of the presence of the One Who lives forever and Who orchestrates everything. Remaining in relationship with Him through the observance of His commandments allows us to partake of His Eternality.
The third level of the fear of G-d is called yirat ha’chet, fear of sin. This is a level of yirah that is reached when a person becomes so clear about the importance of his or her closeness to G-d that the idea of sin itself becomes hateful–since sin is what creates barriers to that relationship. We can understand this in our own interpersonal relationships. After growing together with another person, we tend to understand the boundaries and hopefully respect them, because taking care not to hurt the one we love and making the investments necessary for the cultivation of the relationship is what will enable us to remain close to that person.
Contemporary man is highly challenged in this arena. Another major theme of the parsha is the conundrum of wealth and how success can create pitfalls in our relationship to G-d. The Torah states,
11 Beware lest you forget the L-rd your G-d, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day; 12 lest when you have eaten and art satisfied, and have built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the L-rd your G-d, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; 15 who led you through the great and dreadful wilderness, wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint; 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that He might afflict you, and that He might prove you, to do you good at your latter end; 17 and you say in your heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’ 18 But you shall remember the L-rd your G-d, for it is He that gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:11-18)
It is easy to understand, when there is a concept of the “self-made man”, why the fear of G-d does not come easy. Most of us view success as a buffer against pain; if we appear to be the ones in control, if we can buy our way out of pain, it is hard to constantly maintain a consciousness of the Divine element, the blessing and Will of G-d, which is what actually determines success or failure, no matter what. We did it. That is why the verse warns us to remain steadfast and loyal despite our wealth, because no matter how comfortable it gets, we are just as dependent on the One Who “suspends the universe over nothingness”. It is in the hands of someone who has honed his or her awareness of this fact that wealth and success are safe.
May G-d bless us all with the ability to succeed in acquiring perfect yirah, abundant wealth, and the acuity to understand where our wealth belongs.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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