When is Fear Positive?
תלמוד בבלי ברכות ל״ג:ב
אמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים ־ חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר (דברים י׳): ועתה ישראל מה ה׳ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה
Babylonian Talmud — Masekhet Berakhot 33b
Rabbi Hanina taught: Everything is in Heaven’s hands except the awe/fear of Heaven, as it says, “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere/fear [the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul . . . ]” (Deut. 10:12)
Fears of crisis have filled the news this summer: political gridlock and epic heat waves here in the United States; economic woes on this continent, as well as across Europe; riots in Great Britain; the massacre in Norway; and social upheaval continuing across North Africa and the Middle East. Considering, too, our personal anxieties over health, family, and finances, why would anyone want to add fear of God – not just as a habit but as a duty? I do not believe in a God who demands, much less desires, human trepidation; nor do I believe in an omnipotent God in complete control of our chaotic world. I do, however, find deep truths in Rabbi Hanina’s teaching (above), and in the verse from this week’s Torah portion upon which he bases his statement. This apparent contradiction emerges from a misunderstanding about fear and faith.
The Hebrew term yir’ah, as reflected in my translation of the passage above, actually refers there not specifically to fear but more generally to awe, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expands upon this notion further in developing his idea of “radical amazement”:
Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe. Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe. (Who is Man?, pp. 88–89)
Heschel concludes that discussion by stating that one “must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith.” Instead of focusing on sin and piety, we can embrace our ability to marvel at the glory of Torah and the world and let it inspire us to lead virtuous lives. If we attune ourselves to responding to the magnificence of nature, our heritage, and our people, we can trust that each of us will treat the values and practices of our tradition as a natural extension of our love for God. Rather than cowering from a fearsome deity, we must see every moment as an invitation to uncover God’s hidden sparks and to be in awe of what we find.