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Home » Ekev

Ekev: Why Fear G-d?

Submitted by on July 22, 2013 – 3:21 pmOne Comment | 5,889 views

What is Fear?

Western society has rejected fear. We look back to the pedagogy of previous generations and believe it better to teach our children with love. We look back to the fear based leadership exercised by regimes and monarchies in the past and believe that our tolerant and open approach is better.

The Torah does see value in fear at least as it pertains to fear of heaven. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him.”[1] This leads us to three questions. How do we reconcile our rejection of fear with the value that the Torah places on Yirat Shamayim, fear of heaven? Second, what exactly does the Torah want us to fear about heaven, are we meant to cultivate the anachronistic fear of being struck by lightning if we indulge in sinful pleasure? Third, the Torah mentions fear and love in the same verse, which is more important?

From the verse “those who love Him and keep His commandments, The Talmud infers that fear means to keep G-d’s commandments.[2] It is an odd definition of fear until you take note of one critical word, His. It does not say those who keep the commandments, it says those who keep His commandments. Once we note this word we can understand that fear of heaven means that we keep G-d’s commandment simply because He commanded them.

We are always asking why. Why do we observe Shabbat and why do we keep kosher? Those who serve G-d out of love have their own reason. They are in love with G-d and there is nothing they wouldn’t do for Him. They don’t need to understand why G-d wants it. It is enough to know that He does; whatever G-d wants He gets. That is what you do when you are in love.

Those who fear G-d take a different approach. They observe G-d’s commandments because He commanded. G-d has spoken, shall the world not tremble? When you consider the infinite vastness of G-d’s majesty, might and grandeur, the only option available to you is to listen. This is not because you fear His punishment, but because His greatness moves you. It makes you feel small.why fear g-d - innerstream

Have you ever stood at the top of a mountain looking down on the vista before you? The vastness of the open space is intimidating, it makes you cringe. Not because you fear falling, simply because its size overwhelms. It is huge and in comparison you feel tiny; almost as if your entire being is swallowed up by the sheer size of the place. This is a small example of what G-d fearing people feel when they speak of being awed by G-d’s greatness. G-d Himself spoke, would you consider anything, but obeying?

This is what the Torah means when it writes, that those who fear G-d keep His commandments. They keep the commandments simply because they were given by Him. Such fear, not fear of consequence, but awe, is acceptable even in our society. This answers our first two question, but the third question remains, which is more important, fear of G-d or love of G-d?

Fear or Love

The verse we quoted earlier places fear ahead of love, “to fear the Lord, your God…and to love Him,” implying that fear is more important. Yet the Talmud teaches that fear of G-d you is rewarded for a thousand generations whereas love of G-d is rewarded for two thousand generations. This implies that love is more important. Which is it?[3]

The answer is built into the question. Two thousand is higher than one-thousand, but you cannot reach the second set of thousand before you have traversed the first set of thousand. Just as you cannot reach the second step without climbing the first so is it not proper to serve G-d out of love unless you have first served out of fear.

How are fear and love a two step ladder and why should fear come first?

The Chassidic Masters explained it this way. So long as you serve G-d for self-motivated incentive your service is contingent on your incentive. Suppose you do G-d’s bidding because you love Him and there is nothing you would not do for the one you love. Now suppose you woke up one day to a terrible illness or misfortune and asked yourself a simple question, if I do all that I can for those I love, should those who love me not do all they can for me? If the answer is yes, the next question is, why does G-d not do all He can to help me?

This leaves you with one of two conclusions neither of which are conducive to the survival of your love. The first option is to conclude that G-d doesn’t love you, in which case your love for Him would naturally fade. The other option is to conclude that it’s not necessary to go out of your way for the one you love, in which case you might conclude that just as G-d does not go out of His way for you, you should stop going out of your way for Him. Before long, your worship would fade and finally expire.

This cannot happen if the foundation of our worship is fear. The fear approach is not contingent on self-motivated incentive, it is based on G-d. When G-d commands, there is no option, but to listen; obedience is the only possible response to a Divine commandment.

With that approach our loyalty to G-d never wavers. We might very well experience difficult trials and we might very well ask the questions, but we would never allow ourselves to come to such conclusions.

When you begin with the approach that G-d is awesome, mighty and transcendental, you cannot pretend to understand His ways or know His secrets. You might wonder why a loving G-d allows you to suffer, but you wouldn’t conclude that He doesn’t love you nor would you justify loosening your bond of faith. You cannot expect to understand why G-d does what he does. That is sacrosanct. That is G-d’s concern; who are we to meddle there?

Fear must always be the foundation. If love is the foundation, the edifice might crumble when it encounters sufficient pressure. Fear is firmly rooted and withstands all pressure, but fear alone is insufficient because fear can keep you in line, but it doesn’t incentivize or provide passion. To enjoy a full relationship with G-d, we must graduate from fear to love. Love is the higher form of service because it is self-motivated and filled with passion. But the love must be rooted in fear. Fear first, love second.[4]



[1] Deuteronomy 10: 12.

[2] Deuteronomy 7: 9. See also Rashi and Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 31a. It is inferred from the fact that the second stich of the verse, “those who keep His commandments,” contrasts with the first stitch, “those who love Him.” It implies that the other side of love, which is fear, is defined by one who keeps His commandments.

[3] See the source notes in footnote #2.

[4] This essay is based on Tanya ch. 42.

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