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Home » Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa: The Anatomy of Fear

Submitted by on March 6, 2007 – 12:38 amNo Comment | 2,402 views

Two Fears

In his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. “ (1) Contrast that with Moses, who proclaimed, in his final address to the nation, “All G-d your lord desires from you is that you fear him.” (2)

Moses hailed fear as a positive sentiment, desired by G-d and lauded by humanity. Franklin D Roosevelt described fear as a sentiment to avoid. Which is the proper approach to fear?

One need only read the context of the thirty-first President’s address to understand the nature of the fear he described. He spoke of an arresting fear, “a nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This is a fear of poverty and failure, of injury and danger. It is the fear of standing before a threatening abyss.  Such fear should indeed be avoided.

Moses spoke of a different fear. He spoke of fearing G-d. Fear of G-d doesn’t paralyze, on the contrary, it galvanizes.  Such fear is to be welcomed.

Galvanizing Terror

At the Imax theater, several weeks ago, an incredible image of the zodiac appeared on the giant Omni screen. As  the vista of magnified stars spread out before me, I was gripped by an inexplicable fear.

I wasn’t afraid of falling, I was safely ensconced in my comfortable seat. I wasn’t afraid of injury, the open vista was just an image. Yet I was rattled; I had lost my equilibrium. The projection seemed to hurtle me toward a vastness of unknown dimensions. I couldn’t grasp the unknown or relate to it. I was in utterly unfamiliar territory and I was terrified.

Why was it so terrifying? Because sheer vastness with no known parameters overwhelms the human mind. Such grandeur is beyond our comprehension. In its face our very sense of self fades. We sense our own redundancy as we are swallowed by the vastness and we prefer to shrink away rather than risk our fragile ego.

Yet, my fear didn’t arrest me, it compelled me. Despite the sheer terror, I felt drawn to the images on the screen. I had glimpsed its beauty and couldn’t turn away. The vastness terrified me, but it also beckoned me. I knew the price of my attraction and was willing to pay it. This wasn’t rational. The beauty had somehow awakened the supra rational within me.

This is the fear that Moses was talking about. It is not a paralyzing fear, but a galvanizing fear. One that impels us forward. It provokes a desire to connect with the raw beauty and awesome power that stimulated our awe in the first place.

Fear of G-d

The mystics spoke of two forms of fear in relation to G-d. The first fear is that of punishment. The second, is that of awe. I suggest that the first is the paralyzing fear, President Roosevelt described and the second is the galvanizing fear that Moses addressed. (3)

The first is fear of G-d’s punishment. We fear for our families, our health and wellbeing. We also harbor fears of a more eternal nature; fears of retribution in the world to come. Such fear paralyzes. We reign in our desires and dare not transgress G-d’s word because we fear his punishment. This fear is effective, but it is not the optimum fear that G-d desires. It is not the fear that Moses demanded.

G-d wants us to fear him in a positive sense. He wants us to ponder his unknowable greatness and all-consuming magnetism. To be overwhelmed by his magnificence and splendor. To feel intimidated by his terrific might and frightened of the spectacular vistas that he fills.

This is not a fear of punishment. It is a fear of being lost in infinity; of being completely absorbed by G-d’s vast expanse and rendered entirely irrelevant by it. Yet this fear doesn’t paralyze, it tantalizes. The impending sense of doom is coupled with promise. We are attracted to the greatness that is beyond us. We desire it as much as we fear it. Its beauty is incredible, its allure, fantastic. We yearn to reach out and make it our own. We pine for a connection and are willing to pay the price.

Samples in Nature

We cannot see the divine and are incapable of discerning his greatness. G-d therefore embedded examples of it in nature. The Talmud teaches that G-d created the thunder-clap to straighten out the creases in the human heart. The Chassidic Masters interpreted these creases as our heart’s attraction to the allure of the physical and its propensity to forget G-d. (4)

The thunderclap is an awesome display of nature’s raw power. Its explosive roar and bone-rattling vibrations pierce our very core. Surrounded by nature’s power we feel intimidated. Yet intimidation is not all that we feel. We are also impressed. Overawed by the sheer enormity of the thunder, we find ourselves yearning for more. We regret the end of the storm.

This display of nature’s power is purposeful. It is intended to provoke thoughts about the creator, who produces and orchestrates the display. We are meant to infer the abstract power of G-d from the sheer strength of the thunderclap. If the thunder-clap, which represents only a fraction of nature’s incredible might, can inspire such awe, if nature, which represents only a fraction of the creator’s true potential, can marshal such power, how humbled and overawed must we be in the face of G-d himself?

We are meant to ponder G-d’s abstract and transcendent power, during a thunderstorm, and visualize the infinite extent of his potential. We are meant to recall that G-d is before us at all times even if we cannot discern his immanence. Finally, we are meant to remember the paucity of our own insignificance in the face of his overwhelming greatness. (5)


Many have wondered why love of G-d is not sufficient, why fear is even necessary. In light of the above, the answer is obvious. We can only love what we know, the unknown cannot be loved. It can, however, be feared.

Love for G-d impels us to learn about G-d so that we might love him more. Fear of G-d enables us to be influenced even by those dimensions that are unknowable to the human mind and inaccessible by love. We are inspired by love more than we are by fear, but we are propelled higher by fear than we are by love.

The Golden Calf

This is why G-d’s presence at Sinai was ushered in by a terrific display of thunder and lightening. This is why our ancestors trembled in fright at Sinai. This is also why we are so surprised that they worshiped a golden calf only forty days later. After the awe inspiring display of G-d’s infinite power and compelling beauty, how could they have turned their backs? (6)

This is a question we might never answer. (7)


  1. The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16.
  2. Deuteronomy, 10: 12.
  3. Zohar, v. I p. 11b. See also Tnaya (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813), ch. 4.
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Brachos, 59a.
  5. Meor Enayim(R. Menachem Nachom of Chernobyl, 1730-1787), Yitro, quoted in the name of the Baal Shem Tov.
  6. If they were only inspired to love G-d at Sinai, one might have argued that they found a new love in the Golden Calf. G-d’s beauty is surely more compelling than that of a calf, even a golden calf, yet since the divine beauty was filtered through the prism of their human minds it is possible to argue that the mind, with its self serving aptitude, succeeded in corrupting the purity of their vision. But our ancestors were exposed to the highest dimensions of G-d’s power and beauty. They interacted not only with the known dimensions of the divine, but with the unknowable. The unknowable is not filtered through the human mind. It stimulates an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one. How could they have turned from it?
  7. This essay was inspired by a Chassidic discourse published in Sefer Mamarim Basi Legani (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994), p. 203.
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