Sunday, August 28, 2016

The True Meaning of Yiras Hashem

Yesterday's Torah reading, Parshat Eikev, contains within it the Parshat Hayira, an essential treatise that many recite daily as it appears at the end of the morning prayers in the Ashkenazic service. The portion presents what appears to be a simple credo of Jewish belief.

דברים י׳:י״ב
(יב) וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to 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.
Rashi explains that this is the basis for the famous Talmudic dictum that everything is in the hands of heaven except for the Fear of Heaven. This illustrates the paradox that while God is in total control of everything in our lives, our health, our wealth, our wisdom, our family. God is all powerful and all knowing. However, at the same time, we still have the choice to do right or wrong, free will, represented by our ability to show Fear of Heaven.

This Fear of God expressed in this verse still requires further definition. What does it mean to fear God? This can be presented in two different ways as illustrated by the supplication that Rav used to add to his silent Amida.
ברכות ט״ז ב 
רב בתר צלותיה אמר הכי יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלקינו שתתן לנו חיים ארוכים חיים של שלום חיים של טובה חיים של ברכה חיים של פרנסה חיים של חלוץ עצמות חיים שיש בהם יראת חטא חיים שאין בהם בושה וכלימה חיים של עושר וכבוד חיים שתהא בנו אהבת תורה ויראת שמים חיים שתמלא לנו את כל משאלות לבנו לטובה.

Rab used to add at the conclusion of his prayer : May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigour, a life marked by the fear of sin, a life free from shame and reproach, a life of prosperity and honour, a life in which the love of Torah and the fear of Heaven shall cleave to us, a life wherein Thou fulfillest all the desires of our heart for good.
This prayer asks God to grant us two different types of fear, fear of sin and fear of Heaven. I elaborated on this in my Dafchat blog:

This beautiful Tefilla seems to beseech God for a life full of fear of God twice, once when we ask for "fear of sin" and a second time when we ask G-d for the "fear of heaven". The Eitz Yosef commentary on the Ein Yaakov explains that this teaches us a profound distinction between 2 different types of fear of God, what in English we might call the fear of God vs. the awe of G-d.  
He explains that the first type of fear described here as a fear of sin is a low level fear which involves יראת העונש, a fear of punishment. I am afraid to sin because if I do, I am afraid that God will punish me. While obviously this type of fear is better than no fear at all, a religious experience predicated on this type of relationship with God, who is the "big cop in the sky" who will catch me if I am sinning is not something that is exemplary. It cannot possibly be that great people in Tanach like Avraham, Ovadiah, and Iyyov who are described as fearing God merely had this level of fear of sin.  
 He then explains that the second type of fear, described in this prayer as " fear of heaven" is actually awe of God, described in Hebrew as יראת הרוממות, awe of God's loftiness. This is a very lofty level of fear where in one's religious experience one becomes so enameled with the greatness of the Master of the Universe that he lives in constant awe of his greatness. This is the awe experienced by our great people throughout history. It is an experience that although hard to reach should be an aspiration for us all.
This begs the question, which type of Fear of God is being expressed in our verse in Parshat Eikev, fear of sin or awe of God's loftiness? The Malbim quotes the Abravanel who poses this question and states a paradox. On the one hand, the verse cannot possibly be referring to fear of sin since fear of sin is a relatively low level of belief which even simpletons could have in reference to the Almighty. This could not be the essence of what God demands of us as expressed in the Torah. On the other hand, awe of God, is a very high level of belief that the Malbim states only one person in a generation perhaps can reach. How then could God demand this level of divine reverence from every single Jew?

The Malbim answers with a subtle redefinition of what it means to be in awe of God. He says that this fear or reverence actually comes from the trait of בושה, shame. One attains this through a realization that God is always there watching over one's shoulder. Someone who recognizes that God is watching would be embarrassed to sin not due to fear of punishment but because of the reverence one has when in the presence of the divine.

This recognition of God's constant presence in our lives, שִׁוִּיתִי ה' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד, is described by the Rema in his very first gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, our basic code of Jewish law. Rema explains that when one awakens each morning, he should rise eagerly for the service of God who is with him at all times when he lies to sleep and when he awakens from bed. The last word on one's lips before slumbering are the words of Keriat Shem Al Hamita and Hamapil which express a recognition of God and the first words upon awakening are Modeh Ani which thank and acknowledge the Almighty King of Kings. One who can recognize God's constant presence will have the level of awe of God expressed in Parshat Eikev.

This interpretation while satisfying intellectually is still emotionally difficult to achieve. How can one achieve a state of always realizing God's presence in our lives? I believe this to be a very personal question which each individual should seek to answer.

The poignant story of Yosef from the Chumash has served as my guide for addressing this. Yosef was sold into slavery in the foreign land of Egypt while still a teenager full of youthful charm and just a bit of vanity. He was seduced by his master Potiphar's wife on a daily basis. One day when everyone else apparently was gone, he entered the house to see Potiphar's wife. The Midrash quoted by Rashi states that this was a moment of weakness when Yosef was finally ready to succumb to temptation with the seductress. But then he saw the vision of his father's face in the window. And instead of sinning, he ran away from the Egyptian woman. What is it that Yosef saw? I believe he saw his own reflection in the window but at that moment saw in his reflection his father and all that his father represented. His father was the steadfast man of truth, the patriarch of the family, who had an uncompromising belief in God. This image is what prevented Yosef from sinning.

This I believe can be a guide for us when contemplating God's presence in our lives. The Torah exhorts us later in Parshat Eikev to cleave to the Almighty. Rashi famously asks how this is possible since one cannot attach oneself to God who is incorporeal. Rather he suggests that one should cling to Torah scholars and it will be considered as if he is attached to God.

When trying to imagine God watching over us, one can make an image in one's eye of a beloved teacher or an elderly relative, someone who represents total devotion to God. For Yosef, this was the image of his father. For each of us this will be different. This image can help us reach an awe of the Almighty who is watching over us at all times.

One can find my source sheet for this post on Sefaria. It is also embedded below. As always, I welcome your comments and constructive critique.

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