“Fear and Reverence of G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Once again, in parashat Eikev, Moses stresses to the Jewish people that notwithstanding their improprieties, G-d’s love for His people remains unconditional. It is in this confidence-building portion that Moses famously declares (Deuteronomy 10:12): “V’atah Yisrael, mah Ha-shem Eh-lokecha sho’el may’ee’mach, kee eem l’yira et Ha-shem Eh-lokecha la’lechet b’chal d’rachav ool’ahavah otoh, v’la’avod et Ha-shem Eh-lokecha b’chol l’vav’cha oov’chol naf’shecha,” And now Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d, to go in all His ways and love Him and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, to observe the commandments of the L-rd and His decrees which I command you today for your benefit.

It is on this verse that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) cites one of the most challenging rabbinic statements, “V’rabotainu darshoo me’kan: Hakol bee’day shamayim chootz me’yirat shamayim,” But our rabbis expounded from here: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, with the exception of fear of Heaven.

This citation, originally found in Talmud Brachot 33b, seems to be a rather glaring misinterpretation of the verse. After all, the verse clearly calls on the people to not only fear the L-rd their G-d, but also to go in His ways, to love and serve Him with a full heart and soul, and to keep the commandments of G-d and His statutes. Nevertheless, the Midrashic interpretation of the words “kee im l’yirah,” but to fear, is taken to mean that G-d asks nothing else of a person but to fear the L-rd, for there is nothing else over which a human being has power, influence or choice.

From this Midrashic interpretation, many rabbis and commentators conclude that everything that happens to a human being is essentially predetermined by G-d. A person may only decide whether he or she wishes to recognize G-d’s presence and whether to submit to the Divine will or not. This, they assert, is the full extent of a person’s free will (Rashi’s commentary to Brachot 33b).

This restrictive view of freedom of choice is further bolstered in a Talmudic excerpt from tractate Niddah 16b, cited in the name of Rabbi Haninah ben Papa, who describes the role of the angel in charge of conception:

He takes a drop [of semen] and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, “Sovereign of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?”

The Talmud then notes: Whereas “wicked man” or “righteous one” he [the angel] does not mention, in agreement with the view of Rabbi Haninah. For Rabbi Haninah stated that, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of G-d,” as it is said, “And now Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear, etc.”

While the extent of the human being’s “free will” will long be debated, the concept of “Fear of G-d” begs clarification.

The commentaries (Derashot HaRan cited in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash) maintain that there are two levels of fear of G-d. The lower level is the visceral fear of punishment, that the earth will open up and swallow the evil-doers, like Dathan and Abiram (Deuteronomy 11:6). It reflects a rather puerile relationship with G-d, not as a loving G-d, but rather as a severe and punishing G-d. While it is certainly true that G-d holds His people accountable for their actions, fear of punishment does not normally lead to a very positive spiritual relationship with G-d. In fact, it may very well estrange one from G-d.

The higher level of fear of G-d, toward which Moses asks the people to strive, is holding G-d in awe and relating to Him with reverence. After all, if we truly love G-d and have confidence that everything that G-d does for us or asks of us is for our own benefit, then why should we “fear” G-d?

While fear of punishment is often needed to keep people in line, educators who emphasize this aspect of the relationship with G-d at the expense of a love relationship with G-d are doing a great disservice to our people. In fact, the root of many faith problems that we experience today may very well be due to the mistranslation of the Hebrew word “yirah” as fear, rather than awe or reverence. Our rabbis (Sotah 31a) speak of “yir’ah mee’ahavah,” reverence for G-d out of love, not fear. We are called upon to love G-d so much that we fear hurting Him by going against His will. I would venture to say that many of the young people who walk away from Judaism, despite having had some exposure to Jewish life and education, do so because they were taught to perceive G-d as an ominous, threatening, wrathful and vengeful G-d, rather than a loving G-d.

Moses understood that it was important for the new generation that was to enter the land of Israel to develop a relationship with G-d that was different from that of their ancestors. The older generation, which had endured 40 years in the wilderness, most likely perceived of G-d as a vengeful deity, the G-d who would not permit them to enter the Promised Land. The new generation, who would have the privilege of walking starry-eyed into the land of Canaan to behold its beauty and glory, could begin with a clean slate. They would look forward to settling the land and building homes in peace and tranquility, seeing G-d as a G-d of love and joy, happiness and reward.

It is not at all surprising that the same term “yirah” is used in the Bible to explain the essential relationship between parent and child. It should not be threat of punishment, but rather the sense of awe and reverence for parents–that stems from love–which serves as the fundamental building block for healthy parent-child relationships.

May you be blessed.