Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ekev (Rashi)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives for August 2006.

“But to Fear God”

Last week’s discussion focused on love of God; this week we shall discuss the fear of God, which is an equally central motif in these portions. Interestingly, many people today seem to have problems with the notion of “fear of God,” and prefer to construct a Judaism based exclusively of love. Or perhaps, as I suggested half jokingly to one reader, they are taking too much to heart FDR’s famous saying in First Inaugural Address: “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

More seriously, perhaps the idea of fear is associated too much with authoritarianism, with a kind of blind obedience and often dry, mechanical performance of mitzvot, as opposed to the motif of love, which suggests acts done out of inner conviction, and identification of the self with the mitzvot. Or perhaps it seems ultimately self-centered—I do mitzvot because I am afraid that God will punish me; a motivation based, not on God-consciousness, but of fear for one’s own survival and well-being, whether in this world or the next. But, as we shall see, this is not the correct understanding.

There are several verses in both last week’s and this week’s parasha about fear. Two verses are nearly identical: Deuteronomy 7:13 and 10:20: את ה' אלהיך תירא [ו]אותו תעבד [ובו תדבק] ובשמו תשבע. “Fear the Lord your God, serve Him, [be attached to Him], and swear in His name” (the bracketed phrase appears only in the latter). But perhaps the most important verse on this subject, which serves as the introduction to a whole new section, is the following:

Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.”

Rashi: “Now O Israel.” Even though you did all those things, His mercy and affection are still upon you, and despite your sinning before Him, he asks nothing of you but to fear him, etc. “But to fear.” Our Rabbis inferred from this, “All is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b).

The “things” that they did refers to the catalogue of their sins and rebellions in the desert (above, 9:3-10:11), from the Golden Calf on down. The previous section is a veritable harangue against self-righteousness: “Remember that you are not going into the land on your own merits, because you are the most stubborn of all peoples. Remember how you infuriated Lord your God…” etc. (9:6-7).

The essential point brought here by Rashi—“All is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven”—is an interesting approach. On the one hand, there is a kind of determinism or even fatalism about the concrete events of life—whether one will be healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, live a long or a short life—is determined by God. But, in the realm of one’s moral and religious behavior, all is up to man. For our purposes, what is significant is that yirat shamayim is identified with human free will, or better, the basic attitude underlying how that will is exercised.

The Talmud, in discussing this verse, suggests that the phrase, “What does God demand of you but to fear Him, is rather ironic. The word “only” or “but” (כי אם) seems inappropriate; fearing God is no small or simple thing! וכי יראת ה' מילא זוטרתא היא? The answer given there is interesting: since Moses is speaking here, for is Moses, our Teacher; and for him, fear of God was indeed a simple thing, “like a person who has a great vessel, and is asked for something small.”

Thus, while Abraham is seen as the archetype of love of God, it would seem that Moses was the paradigm for fear of God. What does this mean? Perhaps it is connected to the idea of modesty, that “the man Moses was exceedingly humble.” The essence of the fear of God is not, as often thought, fear of punishment of harm; rather, it is the awareness of the gap between man and God. A person is attracted to God, fascinated by Him, wants to draw close to Him, to know Him, even “to see His face”—and then, at a certain point, he becomes aware of his one’s own “creatureliness,” his mortality, the limitations of his mind, even the potential faultiness of his own moral judgments—and then he draws back, in humility, in fear and in trembling. This is what is known as yirat haromememut—awe of the Divine transcendence and majesty.

A second point that I find interesting here is that, in all these verses, the fear of God is, as Hazal say, the key to all else. Unlike love, which in 6:5 is only amplified in terms of its modalities or dimensions, in these verses fear is coupled with other attributes: serving God, cleaving to Him, swearing oaths in His name, even with loving Him and “walking in (i.e., imitating) His ways.”

A third point: in our prayers, such as Ahavah Rabbah, we speak of love and fear in tandem as central motifs. But, as Hazal observe, in human relations love and fear cannot go together, cannot be associated with the same object. If you love another human being, there must be intimacy, openness; the barriers between people fall. Fear goes with differences in status and rank, hierarchy, formality, limits to closeness. (This idea is reflected in the recent laws about sexual harassment, noted in the recent high-profile cases in our country: if a woman has relations with her boss, who has the power to fire her or to grant her favors, the presumption is that it is fear, rather than love, that is involved.) But matters are different in relation to God; indeed, one cannot exist without the other.

Fear without love can lead to dryness and aridity, a kind of discharge of formal duty without any joy or feeling of inner identification with the mitzvot. In the case of Rabbinic authorities, this fear may express itself in rigidity, formalism, fear of change or innovation, which—if not tempered with love of God, including love for man and woman created in His image—may lead the way to a kind of harshness and cruelty, causing unnecessary human suffering, and inviting abuse by the greedy and vindictive. Many have questioned whether such “fear” is in fact fear of God, or faer of the Shulhan Arukh—or perhaps, fear of being considered insufficiently pious by those who stand to one’s right.

The ideal, of course, is that fear of God creates the framework for loving God, preventing it from bursting out in uncontrolled ways. For there are dangers in love without fear as well: religious anarchy, without structure or limitations; violating boundaries in ways that make others uncomfortable; and, specifically, sexual excess and transgression (Kabbalistic and Hasidic works speak of אהבה רעה, the negative side of love, typically expressed in uncontrolled sexuality). Only in the union of the two is true wholeness to be found.


Post a Comment

<< Home