AWE? SHUCKS, YES!
Rabbi David Walk
Jeff Goldblum is the Jeremiah of actors. In many Hollywood blockbusters he's always telling us to be afraid, be very afraid. It makes no difference if the object of our terror is dinosaurs (my personal favorite), aliens or science experiments gone awry. Every time, there he is leading the charge in the opposite direction. Just seeing his name in the credits should scare us right away. But is fear a bad thing? I remember in the army (Every former soldier loves telling army stories. Listening is a price civilians pay for our service.) our shooting range instructor yelled (They were always yelling.) at us that fear on the battlefield could save our lives, because it would prevent us from doing stupid things. Hopefully. So, we begin this week's article with a deep set affection for Jeff Golblum, my shooting range instructor and fear, and that's a good thing, because it's a major topic in this week's Torah reading (just the fear part).
In our parsha we read, 'And now O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, request of you? Just to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to worship the Lord, God with all your heart and all your soul. And to observe all of His statutes, which I command you this day, it is good for you (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).' Something is wrong with these verses. It begins by saying that God doesn't want that much from us, and the list reads like our Creator wants an awfully lot from us. There are two basic ways to understand this long and demanding list. One is that God isn't asking so much from us because it's ultimately for our own good. It's not a lot to ask us to follow every dictum of God, because we are the beneficiaries. Okay, maybe. The other approach, which we shall explore this week, is that God is only asking us to fear the Divinity and the rest of the stuff just follows logically, but isn't in the initial request. How does that work?
Before I get to my real point, I want to mention a famous statement in the Talmud about our verse. 'Reb Chanina used to say that everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven (Berachot 33b).' This is clearly not the literal meaning of the verse, but an interesting homily. God is only asking for our fear, because everything else is in the Divine hands. The agenda here is clearly that Reb Chanina's view of the world is that God micromanages the cosmos. Even though I personally disagree with this point of view (as does Maimonides), this allows him to explain that since we are only in charge of our own spirituality that's the only thing God can ask from us.
Now to business. In Psalm 111 it says, 'The beginning of all wisdom is fear of the Lord (verse 10).' This helps us to understand our verse. Since 'fear' is the beginning of our intellectual development, then we can interpret our verse to mean that God only requests fear from us, all the other items mentioned in the verse are the direct result of that fear. This is actually the approach of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Rav Chaim Attar, 1690-1750). He claims that God desires two levels of commitment from Jews, and one is higher than the other. One is fear and the other is love, however God only asks for our fear. He goes on to explain that this is because fear is the catalyst which brings you to these higher planes.
But what is there about fear which prevents us from doing the wrong or foolish thing? Fear reminds us that every action has a reaction, and those can be unpleasant. But fear is what ends youthful foolishness. As God told Noach, 'The tendency of humanity is evil from their youth (Genesis 8:21). Fear brings us into contact with our yetzer hatov or good inclinations. This is what the Ohr Chaim describes as the power of fear, which is the opening to the gate of love. Love of God is the ultimate goal, a future destination to aspire to. But fear is about right now, this very instant. Now we can understand the wording of the verse. It begins with the word 'v'ata', which means 'and now.' Originally I might have thought that this was addressed to us the readers, but, no it is the advice given to the person who is at a crossroads in life. At every junction I want healthy trepidation to guide my footsteps into wise choices. As King David said in Psalm 111, I want fear to be the beginning of wise decisions.
However the benefits of fear don't end there. In Jewish thought there are many kinds of fear. The first level, which we just discussed, is the fear of punishment or negative repercussions. But once I understand the benefits of 'fear' and accept that the Law Giver cares about us, then our fear transforms into something greater called respect or awe. When we talk about yirat hashem, I prefer to translate that as awe of God. The Ohr Hachaim says that the word v'ata (and now) in the verse refers to this world, as opposed to the World to Come. I think that he is hinting to the fact that this awe of God is the highest spiritual attainment in this world. There's time for love of God in heaven, but in the here and now, awe is our goal.
Moshe Rabbeinu continues his farewell address to the Jewish people, here in Deuteronomy and one of the greatest pieces of advice he can give is to always maintain this healthy fear of God and all the Divine decrees we have received. This fear eventually can change into an impressive religious status, but initially it just helps to keep us safe. So, that we can report on our spiritual growth in a similar vein as the cowardly lion, when he said, 'Awe, shucks, tweren't nuthin'. But it makes a big difference.