Paranoid or Responsible?
The purpose of fear
Every seven years, during the Holy Temple era, the king would get up on a platform and read to everyone a number of sections from the Torah which contain various commandments and essential principles. The Torah dictates this Mitzvah as follows (31:12): “Gather the nation, the men, the women, the children and the converts who dwell in your gates, in order that they should listen and in order that they should learn, and they should fear the Almighty your God and they should keep all the words of this Torah.” The Torah hereby states that the purpose of this gathering is to achieve four things. The people should listen, learn, fear God, and keep the Torah. The third goal, “to fear God,” seems somewhat out of context. As the king reads the Torah to the people, we naturally would expect them to listen, learn and keep that which they are taught. But where does fear come in? The Torah doesn’t mention anything about frightening the people as part of this ceremony. Why would the people be instilled with fear, and what is the purpose of this fear?
This brings to mind the words of the Mishnah. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:17) says, “If there is no wisdom there is no fear. If there is no fear there is no wisdom.” The fear mentioned here does not refer to a fear of a particular danger. This fear is the feeling of awe of God that is inspired by the Torah and is necessary for true appreciation of the Torah. The Torah is an expression of the will of our Great Master. Keeping its instructions builds true, unimaginable, eternal greatness, while defying them is tragic. The proper way to study the Torah and to live by the Torah is to do so with an appreciation of the gravity of the matter at hand. When one contemplates the significance of the laws of the Torah and their consequences, the greatness of God and His word, as well as His boundless kindness and complete supervision of the universe, he will start to feel the awe of God, (see Sha’arei Ohr, by Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer, part 4). It is not enough to just know the laws of the Torah and to execute them. The framework which they are meant to be performed in is with an attitude of fear of Heaven. Rabeinu Yonah (on the Mishnah) explains that without proper fear of Heaven, one will slack off in practicing the wisdom which he has gained from studying the Torah. Furthermore, awe is an integral component in personal greatness as an aspect of becoming subservient to God, (see Mishnas R’ Aharon, vol. 1 p. 109). Accordingly, we can understand the meaning of the Mishnah of how the two attributes go hand in hand and why an element of fear is part of “Hakhel”. The awe of God is part and parcel with learning the Torah properly and keeping to its wisdom. At the same time, being attentive to the words of the Torah in earnest sustains the awe one should have of the word of the Almighty.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveichik was known for his extreme carefulness in performing Mitzvos. He once commented to someone, “People think that I am a nervous person, and that is why I act in a paranoid fashion in regard to Mitzvos. That is not the case.” In fact, people witnessed just the opposite. During war times, Rabbi Soloveichik could be found studying calmly as bombs were falling in the vicinity. He then proceeded to explain himself, “Imagine that for some reason you ended up with a million dollars in your pocket, how would you walk around? You would have your hand attached to your pocket without letting go even for a second. Is that because you are unreasonably nervous? Not at all. When it comes to a million dollars, everyone becomes nervous and is subsequently very watchful. For me, every Mitzvah is like a million dollars.”
Usually, fear is unpleasant, and is generally looked down upon. However, to have awe of God is one of the greatest accomplishments that one can achieve in this world. In addition, fear of God is not a feeling of weakness, but a sense of great responsibility. It is incumbent upon us to contemplate our esteemed role in this world as followers of the Torah. It would be highly constructive to take some time every so often to think about the greatness of God and the consequences of our actions. Certainly, we should have this attitude in mind when hearing words of Torah. By doing so, we will embark on a path to reach extraordinary greatness in our lives.
Parshas Vayelech 5779/2019
firstname.lastname@example.org by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber