The Fear of God in Our Time Part 2 of 2

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
L'Zecher Nishmat
Shmuel David ben Yerachmiel Zvi




III.  the fear of punishment in this world


            Thus far, we have been speaking about the fear of punishment in the world-to-come.  In contrast, the fear of punishment in this world – the fear of disease, misfortune, and the like – is indeed very easily attained.  But a word of caution is necessary: a small measure of such thinking may be beneficial, but when it comes to dominate a person's outlook, it is liable to lead to trouble. 


            It is a mistake to think that the entire world is built on immediate and clearly evident reward and punishment.  Only the righteous merit this level of Divine intervention, as in the case of Rabbi Elazar ben Parta and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon, who knew precisely which transgression had led to their arrest (Avoda Zara 17b).  Ramban, in his commentary to the book of Iyyov (36:7), writes:


The perfectly pious man who cleaves to his God at all times, so that he does not separate from Him when he contemplates worldly affairs, will be protected at all times from the accidents of time… In proportion to the closeness of his cleaving to God, he will be under higher protection. 

One who is far from God in his thoughts and actions, even if he is not liable for death on account of a sin that he committed, will be abandoned to chance events…

Since the majority of the world falls into the middle category (i.e., neither "perfectly pious" nor "far from God in their thoughts and actions"), the Torah commanded that [certain] soldiers be removed [from the battleground] and that the [High Priest] who was anointed for war send back those who were afraid…[1]


The lives of most people, then, with the possible exception of the perfectly pious, are governed by the natural laws of the universe.  An ordinary person prays to God, seeking to approach the level of the perfectly pious person and thereby merit God's constant providence.  But as long as he has not yet reached that level, he must remember that it is wrong to think that all of his affairs are subject to God's providence in a clearly visible way.  This is what Chazal teach us about prayer (Berakhot 32b):


Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick" (Mishlei 13:12). 


Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


"And looks for the fulfillment" – he hopes that his prayer will be fulfilled because he had prayed long.  [But] in the end, when it is not fulfilled, it turns out that his prayers had been drawn out in vain.  The heart is vexed when a person hopes for something and his wish does not come true.


            It is legitimate to think about recompense in this world, but such thinking can certainly not serve as a basis for faith.  We sometimes see how little children who never even tasted sin suffer afflictions and diseases no less than grown adults.  Thus, the idea of the fear of punishment cannot be taken too far in this direction.  In the end, such an attitude is liable to bring a person to complain to God why such-and-such happened to this person and not the next, or the like.


            Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broida (the "Sabba of Kelm"), a student of Rabbi Itzele of Petersburg, no longer spoke of the fear of punishment.  In Slobodka, as well, they spoke about the grandeur of man, appreciating the fact that the fear of God cannot be founded upon the fear of punishment alone.


IV.  basing the fear of goD on the fear of punishment in our Time


            It seems to me that in today's world, in addition to the educational problems mentioned above, there may even be something inherently wrong with the Torah community's basing their worship of God on the fear of punishment.  At a time when people sacrifice their lives on behalf of national, social and moral ideals, it would be degrading to say that we serve God only out of the fear of punishment. 


            This is the way Rabbi Kook described his generation in his "Ma'amar ha-Dor" (Eder ha-Yakar, p.  111):


It also fails to fill him with fear and dread, for he has already elevated himself to the point that he does not allow his life to be determined by fear of any type, whether concrete or imagined, physical or spiritual.  Terrible hardships and troubles have made him tough and strong, to the point that horrors and terrors do not move him… He is unable to repent out of fear, but he is very well suited to repent out of love, when it is combined with the fear of God's exaltedness.


            Rabbi Kook's words are all the more valid after the Holocaust.  Jews prayed even in the concentration camps; can we possibly say that they did so solely out of the fear of punishment?


            Basing the fear of God on the fear of punishment exhibits an additional flaw, as Rabbi Kook writes elsewhere (Middot ha-Ra'aya, yir'a, par. 3):


The idea of the fear of God adds strength and courage to the soul of man who understands it in its purity; it fills life with interest, great aspirations, and lofty spirituality…  Sometimes, however, it stands as a symbol of panic, causing weakness, despair and impotence.  This effect is very bad, and when it spreads, it leads to revolt against the yoke of the kingdom of God among the young who had a taste of vigorous life, who rightfully seek a life that is free of fear and horrors, and full of faith and courage. 


V.  the fear of god's exaltedness


            A higher level of the fear of God involves a fear of His exalted nature, or awe.  In order to attain such fear, one must feel the presence of God – "I have set the Lord before me always" (Tehillim 16:8).  Ramchal writes (Mesillat Yesharim, chap.  24):


The fear of [God's] exaltedness is experienced at a particular point in time, whether it be a moment of worship or an occasion to sin.  It is to experience, when standing in prayer or engaged in service, great shame and trembling before [God's] exalted glory, blessed be He…


A person who experiences the presence of God while he is engaged in prayer, can at the same time reach the fear of God's exaltedness out of a feeling of his own worthlessness vis-a-vis God.  Such a feeling is likely to bring a person to a sense of shame generated by sin.


            Rambam describes the path leading to the fear of God's exaltedness, a path that leads from the love of God to the fear of God (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2):


And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures, and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name… And when he ponders these very matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge.


            Yet even this approach has proven itself inadequate in our generation.  The tools and knowledge available today allow us to study each and every cell in the human body and see precisely what constitutes "His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite." Still, we remain so very far away from the reaction described by Rambam: "He will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name." It seems that even in a generation where every educated person understands the complexity of atomic particles and the possibility of genetic engineering, this knowledge is still very far from a belief in God who rules nature, who exists independently of the world, "who reigned before any being was created, and who alone shall still be king at the end when all shall cease to be."


            We, too, members of the believing community, who accept the assumption that God's existence does not depend upon any other being, and that "there is no being besides Him, that is really like Him" (Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:4), sometimes find it difficult to draw a direct connection between the contemplation of nature and belief in God.  It is, therefore, difficult for us to advocate Rambam's approach as the primary path to the acquisition of the love and fear of God.


VI.  the Basis for Fearing God in Today's world


            It seems to me, therefore, that the worship of God in today's world should be founded in large part upon a feeling that stands somewhere between the fear of punishment and the fear of God's exaltedness.  In order to make this more understandable, let us draw upon what the Torah itself compared to the fear of God – the mitzva of fearing one's parents (Kiddushin 30b):


The verse states: "You shall fear every man his mother and his father" (Vayikra 19:3), and another verse states: "You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve Him" (Devarim 6:13), thus comparing the fear of one's father and mother and the fear of the Omnipresent.


The very possibility of comparing the fear of flesh and blood to the fear of Heaven follows from the words of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to his disciples (Berakhot 28b):


"May it be [God's] will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood." His disciples said to him: "Is that all?" He said to them: "If only [you can attain this]! You can see [how important this is], for when a man wants to commit a transgression, he says, I hope no man will see me."


The fear of one's parents is based neither on the fear of punishment nor on the fear of their exalted nature.  It stems from a natural feeling present in every healthy person, who feels obligated to listen to his parents, to avoid contradicting them, to bring them pleasure, and to act on their behalf with full devotion.  He expects no reward, nor does he fear punishment; his attitude does not even stem from the mitzva to honor one's mother and father.  Rather, he follows his natural feelings.  The same is true about the feelings of obligation and loyalty that a person has to other members of his family, to his people, and to the values of justice and morality.


            The basic level of the fear of God is a similar feeling.  We nullify ourselves in the face of His great exaltedness as our Creator and as our Father, because of whose abundant love we are called His sons, and upon whose loving-kindness we rely in every step that we take.  Thus, there arises within us a feeling of absolute commitment to God, to obey Him and accept His commands as self-evident, and to do whatever finds favor in His eyes.


Obviously, this feeling requires constant nurturing, and it is our obligation to take steps to intensify this feeling of commitment.  It must be emphasized, however, that we are not dealing here merely with a decision to accept commitment, for our goal is that this sense of commitment be transformed into a natural feeling that is constantly with us, this being the fear of God.  The more deeply we experience this feeling, the closer we will come to loving and fearing Him.




            In Yiddish, the term "frumkeit" is generally associated with a sense of heaviness and an overly fastidious observance of the mitzvot.  In both the Chassidic and Mussar movements, there were those who saw in "frumkeit" an important value; others dissociated themselves entirely from it, as in Slobodka and in Kotzk.  The negative aspects of "frumkeit" generally include a greater emphasis placed on "turning away from evil" than on "doing good," and strictness that is applied primarily to others.  The fear of sin occasionally leads to a certain passivity – a fear of taking action – which leads to a freezing of the creative process and an avoidance of all struggle.  Thus, so called "fear of God" can lead to self-nullification, which can in turn lead to total inactivity.


            My grandmother, Hy"d, was a very righteous woman with simple faith.  I remember waking up every morning and finding my shoes polished.  My grandmother told me that since I spent my days studying Torah, the least she could do was polish my shoes.  This notwithstanding, she would often quote the popular saying that "frum" is an acronym for "fiel rishus uveinig mitzvos" (= "much wickedness and few mitzvot").


Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel ("the Alter of Slobodka") related to this phenomenon ("Sichot ha-Saba mi-Slobodka," pp. 54-56):


We have become accustomed to think that the concepts of fear and joy are far removed from each other, opposites that cannot coexist: he who is afraid is not happy, and he who is happy is not afraid.  When, however, we reflect upon the matter from a Torah perspective, things look very different.  We would see that not only are fear and joy not enemies, not only does one not negate the other, but just the opposite: they reinforce and complement each other.  A person cannot acquire fear without at the same time acquiring joy, for the one cannot exist without the other.


The Alter of Slobodka adduces proof from the law regarding ma'aser sheni, the second tithe, about which the Torah states (Devarim 14:22-23):


You shall surely tithe all the increase of your seed, that the field brings forth year by year.  And you shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place which He shall choose to place His name there, the tithe of your corn, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herds, and of your flocks; that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.


It is explicitly stated here that the ultimate objective of bringing the second tithe to Jerusalem is to attain the fear of God.  What does this mean?  The Alter continues:


According to the general understanding of the fear of God, it should follow that when a person would come to Jerusalem to learn the fear of God, he would immerse himself in grief and sorrow, dread and worry; his eyes would issue forth fear and sadness, and Jerusalem – the city which instilled the fear [of God] – would go into mourning; thousands of people would cast off the vanities of the world and of life, they would go about all day long with angry faces, wrapped in bitter thoughts, and creating a frightening atmosphere and an environment full of sadness and worry that kills life and the yearning for life.  How could it be any different?


            However, we all know that the Torah continues with a very different description of the atmosphere that prevailed in Jerusalem (verses 24-26):


And if the way be too long for you, so that you are not able to carry it; because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God shall choose to set His name there, when the Lord your God has blessed you: then shall you turn [the produce] into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose; and you shall bestow that money on all that your heart desires, on oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your soul requires: and you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you, and your household.


The Alter of Slobodka concludes:


The Torah is not describing life that is restricted or petty, a life of crude and cheap desires that run about in man's heart and confine him in narrow and suffocating straits.  A Torah life is illuminated by God's light; it opens up wide expanses before man, broadening his heart and soul.  His eyes will see all the worlds, and his thoughts will encompass eternity.  A life of Torah is so pure and pleasant that it does not contain even the slightest unpleasantness – spiritual or material.


Translated by David Strauss

[1]  See also Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 18.