The Hebrew word yirah means both "to fear" and "to see." The essential choice of life is to open our eyes to available opportunities, and to fear the consequences of avoiding that reality.
Fear is like any other emotion – there are both positive and negative aspects. Negative fear is debilitating. Positive fear is exhilarating. The adrenaline gets the blood running in your veins. It gives you power to accomplish what you want to do. If you're walking along and spot a snake, fear propels you to run with blazing speed and hurdle the fence like an Olympian. With fear, you are out of the dream world and 100 percent into reality.
Making the right choice is a constant human struggle. We have an inclination to take the easy way out, and to ignore the coming consequences. Fear of consequences can be a great motivator in getting the job done quickly and efficiently. "To see or not to see?" – that is the Jewish question.
Imagine hidden cameras monitoring your progress through life. The whole world is watching. People cheer when you succeed and boo when you fail.
With all those people staring, won't you be careful with every move? Won't your motivation to succeed increase tremendously?
Walk with a constant awareness of God. Everything is recorded on videotape. Are we maximizing life's opportunity, or are we wasting it? One day we'll have to answer for our actions.
That fear can motivate you to greatness.
Unfortunately, human nature is to become distracted. Each of us has a self-doubting inclination, called the Yetzer Hara. It's like a vicious dog, always threatening you: "You're overextending yourself. You'll have a nervous breakdown and fall apart." We hesitate to act because we're frightened by his threats.
Fear of God is the key to all accomplishment in this world.
Fear of God gives you full freedom. Nothing will stand in your way. The dog is insignificant compared to fear of God. You just push right ahead. You're free from all other fears. You have turned yourself into a pure conduit for the will of God.
Fear of God is the means to acquire all other mitzvot, and the key to everything we want to accomplish in this world. So what's holding us back?
Consider the following four myths:
Myth #1 – Fear Is Painful
On one hand, people say that fear is uncomfortable and threatening. We structure our lives to avoid it. On the other hand, people ride roller coasters and watch horror movies – paying good money to get scared out of their wits!
How do we understand this contradiction?
It's a mistake to think that fear is painful. Yes, fear is uncomfortable, but it delivers great pleasure. When they shove you out of the airplane before the parachute opens, you forget all the nonsense of this world. The brush with death makes you appreciate how good it is to be alive. You're plugged into reality. Suddenly life is a thrill!
Counteract the discomfort of fear by focusing on the positive side – every moment is lived with awareness and excitement. Gather your powers. Use your potential. Be motivated by fear. It is thrilling to be afraid!
Go to an amusement park and watch people getting off the roller coaster. Everyone's giggling for the first block: "It's great to be alive." By the second block, they're getting more serious as they begin to remember their problems. By the third block, they're into petty nonsense, back to their old depressed selves...
Life is boring without fear. Notice how "successful" people inevitably look for new risky ventures. It may be a risky financial investment, or it may be hang-gliding lessons.
The key to getting the most out of life? Feel like you're constantly getting off the roller coaster.
Myth #2 – Fear Is Paralyzing
People think that fear is paralyzing and reduces your potential.
Actually, the opposite is true. Fear can generate super-human feats. We've all heard stories about a mother who picked up a car to save her child trapped underneath. Facing fear is empowering. It gives you strength you never knew you had.
Fear is only damaging when you run away and don't confront it.
Imagine watching bullies beat someone up, and you just stand by watching. You'll wince every time you think about it. If you don't face the fear and stand up for what's right, you'll suffer that experience for the rest of your life.
But if you face the bullies and they back down (or even if you fight and get a little bloody), you'll enjoy that moment for the rest of your life. You were afraid, but you stood up. You did the right thing. That's true pleasure.
Better to try and fail, than to have feared to try.
"Shock" debilitates, "fear" motivates. Imagine a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. The fear of being tossed makes him alert to every move, so his response can be accurate and quick.
Try to be the same way with life.
Avoiding the Challenge
Too often, we miss an opportunity to excel because we say: "I can't. It's too much effort." For example, imagine you're asked to memorize one page of the phone book in 24 hours. "Impossible!" you say.
But what if you're held hostage and they say: "If you don't memorize one page of the phone book by tomorrow night, you're dead." No question you'll do it!
Here's a practical example. Do you want to get out of bed in the morning with a bang? Sure, but it's too much effort. How about if I come with a gun every morning? You'll get up with a bang, no problem!
Now how much would you pay to wake up like that every day for the rest of your life? $5,000? $10,000? You really want to get up that way! So come on! Let's go!
Take advantage of the power of fear as a tool to tackle all your "I can'ts." Make a list of these "I can'ts" and put a price tag on them. What is the reward, and what is the consequence? Having this clarity will turn you into a very effective human being.
Myth #3 – Fear Means Loss of Freedom
People avoid fear because in order to preserve independence. We think if there's an outside force telling us what to do, we'll be intimidated into becoming a robot. We'd rather choose to do the right thing on our own.
Fear of the Almighty is different. When you fear violating God's word, that frees your potential. Why? Because God doesn't want to control you, He only wants what's good for you. So fear of God becomes freedom from nonsense, from silly fears, from pettiness. With fear of God, you're free from all other fears in the world.
With fear of God, you're free from all other fears in the world.
Fear is only enslaving when someone else is purposefully trying to be fearsome and controlling. But fear of reality – the possibility of missed opportunities – is a motivation to get us where we want to be. We all say: "I want to be good, but I don't want to make the effort." Fear motivates you to get the job done.
At work, you know that if you don't show up, you'll get fired. So you get out of bed early. Fear of failing a test makes you study harder. In the end, this fear helps you succeed and have more self-respect.
We all want greatness. We want to be tough, disciplined, organized. Fear leaves you unencumbered. For the right amount of money or for survival, you will do whatever it takes to succeed.
Myth #4 – Fear Is Demeaning
People think that if a certain act is right, you should do it because it's right, not out of fear of consequences. It seems demeaning to respond based on fear.
Ideally, we should all do the right thing simply because it's right, and avoid what's wrong, irrespective of the consequences. Indeed, the Sages say that someone who serves God only for reward, or to avoid punishment, is on a lower level. He's only serving himself. If the evil forces could pay more, he'd be loyal to them!
So why is there a special mitzvah to acquire fear? Shouldn't we get full motivation from love of God?
Yes, someone who serves God out of love is on a much higher level. And we should strive to do the right thing because it's right, not because it will "get you to heaven." But we have to be realistic as well. Love is often insufficient motivation to do good. As long as you will march faster and do the right thing by getting paid $100,000, it's better to take the money and do the right thing!
Suppose there was a program to help bring homeless people into the community shelter. Ideally, you would do this for free. But if you were offered $100 for every homeless person, did the reward "corrupt" you? No. It just gave you a stronger motivation for doing what you already knew was right.
And there's an added consideration as well. Hopefully, acting out of fear will eventually lead you to do the right thing out of love.
The Pain Reflex
Everyone is born with the ability to sense pain. If we're stuck with a pin or burned by fire, our hand jumps back instinctively. But some people are born without a pain response. They feel nothing if their hand is put into fire.
Sure, it's nice not to feel pain. But someone who feels no pain is in constant danger. He's black and blue all the time. He puts his hand in the fire and says, "You smell something burning? Hey! It's my hand!" But he's in trouble, the hand is gone already.
Pain is essential to our survival. And that's the purpose of fear of God, of keeping ultimate consequences clearly in mind. It's not the goal in life, but a means to an end. It helps us think twice before we insult someone or yell at our parents.
Imagine you're speaking to someone and he starts spewing filthy gossip. You know it's wrong to listen, so you ponder, "Maybe I'll just politely stand here for a few minutes..." But if someone is ready to smack you on the head with a baseball bat for gossiping, you'll immediately say, "I'm getting outta here!" You don't make calculations. You just do the right thing.
Fear of punishment is like a pain reflex. It keeps us from doing things that will cause us harm later on. It gets you where you want to be.
Here are five steps to help achieve that crucial goal.
Step #1 – Expand Your World
Sit back and think of how much pleasure this world has to offer. The pleasure of eyesight, the joy of children, the wonders of nature. Think about the invigoration of swimming, skiing, art, music, literature.
Now consider the pleasure achieved by someone who lives every moment to the fullest, through an entire lifetime. Then compare it to where we are. So many pleasures available in this world... and we're just nibbling at a tiny fraction.
The first step to appreciating rewards and consequences? Break out of your petty concept of what life has to offer. Dream your loftiest dreams and then make a plan to achieve them. Imagine what humanity could accomplish if everyone since the beginning of time lived life to the fullest. We're not even scratching the surface.
We're sleepwalking through life.
Step #2 – Avoid Unnecessary Pain
Realize that the potential for pain in this world eclipses the potential for pleasure. There is war, disease, tragedy. Consider those who went through the Holocaust, who witnessed evil ruling the world and felt powerless to stop it.
God forbid if someone loses a child. The heartbreak is unimaginable. There is no possible pleasure that can make up for that pain.
Depressing? The point is to become motivated. When you're aware of all the possible pain, then you are more eager to know: What can I do to avoid it?
Step #3 – Avoid Eternal Pain
The first two steps deal with pleasure and pain that the body experiences in this world.
Step three is to realize that the pain of the soul is far more devastating. One moment in Gehenom (the purifying stage of afterlife) is more painful than all the combined pain of this world. Because it is not transitory like the body; it is eternal.
The shame that the soul feels from one transgression is worse than all the pain of this world.
The shame and regret that the soul feels from one transgression is far worse than all the pain of this world. One act of getting angry, or hurting someone, or being depressed, or wasting time... is a relentless eternity of pain.
Now extrapolate this to the big transgressions – murder, or desecrating God's Name. The pain of such Gehenom is unimaginable.
Step #4 – The Reward of One Mitzvah
Now for some good news. The pain of Gehenom is nothing compared to the reward of one mitzvah. In other words, if you experienced the pain of all the Gehenom of every person since the beginning of time, it would still be worth it to gain the reward of one mitzvah.
There are thousands of possible mitzvot. Did you say "Good morning" with a smile, or have a moment of sincere prayer? The reward is mind-boggling. You're eternally bound with the ultimate pleasure of God.
Beyond this are the big mitzvot, like learning Torah, or sanctifying God's Name. Or the super-big mitzvah of mezakeh et harabim – "bringing merit to the masses" – where you influence others and share the reward of their mitzvot.
Step #5 – Doing The Will of God
The ultimate reward is using your free will to do the will of God.
Imagine trying to save the life of your child. This value makes everything else pale in comparison. If someone asked, "How much will it cost to save my child?" you'd know there is something wrong with this person.
Similarly, being motivated to connect to God – based solely on reward and punishment – shows a lack of understanding. The value of doing God's will is, ultimately, the only true value in existence. Because it is a total connection to God.
All of the reward of the World to Come, all that belongs to all the righteous people who ever lived, is nothing compared to doing the will of our Creator, of making a difficult choice solely because that's what God wants you to do.
That is the ultimate meaning. That is living in reality.
The Powerful Time of Tefillin
In order to absorb this reality, you need to practice these steps – not once, not twice, but thousands of times.
Maimonides writes (Laws of Tefillin 4:25) that whenever a Jew wears Tefillin on his head and arm, the force of holiness is so great that it transports him into a state of "fearing God."
That's why the best time to review our five steps is when you put on Tefillin:
- There's so much pleasure we haven't tasted in this world. How do we go about getting it?
- The tragedies of this world eclipse all the pleasures.
- The eternal regret and shame for the slightest transgression, is far more than all the combined tragedies of this world.
- All the Gehenom deserved by every person who ever lived, is nothing compared to the reward for doing one mitzvah.
- All the Heaven deserved by every person who ever lived, is nothing compared to doing the will of God.
Go through these steps when putting on Tefillin, and again before taking them off. You'll be living in a different stratosphere... called "reality."
If You Want Fear of God, You'll Get It
The Talmud says: "Everything is in the hands of heaven – except for fear of God." Fear of God is completely up to us. If you want it, you've got it.
But there's a question on this point. In our daily prayers we say, vi'ti'tain lanu chaim she'yesh bahem yirat shamayim v'yirat chet. We specifically ask the Almighty to give us "fear of God." But if "fear of God" is in our hands, why do we ask God to give it?
The answer is that everything, of course, depends on the Almighty. We can't lift a finger without God. With most things, you can yearn deeply and still not attain it. You can desire to be a millionaire so badly that you work 80 hours a week and stand on your head – and you can still die a pauper.
But fear of God is different. It's the only thing that, "if you really want it, you've got it." With everything else, God may evaluate that your request is not good for you. But fear of God is the one thing the Almighty won't withhold if you truly desire it, because it's the one thing that always brings you into reality. It's always good for you.
If you really want it, it's yours.
Without Fear of God, We're in Trouble
The Talmud quotes the sage Rava telling his disciples: "Don't get two portions of Gehenom."
Rashi explains Rava's intentions: If you make Torah study a purely academic pursuit, and also don't observe the mitzvot, then you'll get Gehenom twice. It's like someone who learns Talmud on Shabbat while smoking a cigar. Without fear of God, he lacks the mechanism to connect Torah to reality. And not only is he deprived of the pleasures of this world because he knocked himself out studying, but after it's all over, he loses the World to Come as well.
Now what about someone who observes the mitzvot? It's not so simple either. When a person dies, he is summoned for judgment to the heavenly court, where he is asked the following questions:
- Were you honest in business?
- Did you have a set time for learning every day?
- Did you try to have children?
- Did you yearn for the redemption?
- Did you pursue wisdom and understanding?
Let's say you answer "yes" to everything. You did it all correct. But there's one last question:
- Did you have fear of God?
If not, says the Talmud, you'd be better off having done nothing at all. Fear of God is a deal-breaker.
Why is that? Fear of God is your "preservative." It keeps your Torah fresh. Torah without fear of God, is like storing wheat without a preservative. The wheat rots.
The classic book "Orchot Tzaddikim" ("Paths of the Righteous") teaches that regardless of how much wisdom a person possesses, without fear of God, he is fundamentally off base. Yes, he realizes that Torah is to be lived. Yes, he's on a higher level than the one who has no connection to mitzvot at all. But he's taking it easy. He's given up on the loftier essence of Torah – loving humanity, taking responsibility for the world, striving to cleave to the Almighty. He says: "Leave me alone already. That's not for people of this generation. I'm comfortable where I am."
As he ignores the struggle to grow, a cynicism affects his entire outlook. And he begins to rot.
That's why fear of God is so crucial. It pushes you to confront these ideals, and to struggle to incorporate them into your life.
Putting it All Together
The single most important goal in life is to have clarity, to live in reality.
Remember the time you asked yourself, "What does it all add up to?" We have this moment of clarity, and then what do we do? We run for the ostrich hole, start playing tennis, put on the music, call up a friend.
Don't run for the ostrich hole. Remember that reality exists objectively – outside of your own subjective perception of it. Be afraid of waking up one morning and saying to yourself: "What did I do with my life?"
Each of us knows we will die one day. But we fool ourselves into thinking that those who die belong to a separate sector of humanity. "They are the mortal ones. We are immortal." Underneath it all, we have this illusion.
Do you really think you are going to be different? Be real! You are one of them!
We all have a clock ticking and don't know how long it's going to run. How many years do you figure you have left? Don't think it's open-ended. Someday you will have only one year left. And someday you will have only one day left. So plan for it now. As the Sages say: "Put your life on track one day before you die."
Some Jews have the custom of visiting their future burial plots once a year, usually before Rosh Hashana. Why? It's not morbidity. It makes the point clear: "I am mortal, and this is where I'll end up. So what do I want written on my tombstone?"
Be real with the consequences of life. You don't need a roller coaster. All you have to do is remember that the Almighty is watching you, every moment of every day. And when a person dies and goes to heaven, the judgment is not arbitrary and externally imposed. Rather, every decision and every thought, all the good deeds, and the embarrassing things a person did in private is all replayed without embellishment. That's why the next world is called Olam HaEmet, "the World of Truth," because there we clearly see our strengths and shortcomings, and the true purpose of life.
Carry that fear with you always, and use it as a positive motivator for greatness. It's a constant struggle, but the reward is eternal.