Fear of God
"You shall fear HaShem, Your God." (1)
The mitzvah to fear God is one of the most fundamental mitzvot in the Torah and is one of the 'shesh mitzvot temidiut', the six constant mitzvot that one must fulfill at any moment.(2) This mitzvah would seem to contradict another of the constant mitzvot, Ahavat HaShem. the mitzvah to love God - this teaches us that God is all giving and loving. If that is the case then how can we be expected to fear Him; people generally fear things or beings who do not have their best interests at heart. The commentaries explain that the fear required in the mitzvah of yirat HaShem cannot be equated to fear of something that is trying to cause us harm, rather, at its most basic level, it consists of fear of the consequences of our actions. Yirat Hashem teaches us that God is not a vatran - a vatran is someone who forgives people for their misdemeanours even when they have not corrected their behaviour. God does not act in that way, rather He has placed a system in the world whereby if a person commits a spiritually negative action then, as a consequence he will be spiritually damaged.
The Sages take this point further by explaining what exactly we should and should not be afraid of: The Gemara in Berachot notes a seeming contradiction about fear between verses in the books of the Prophets.(3) King Solomon writes in Proverbs; "fortunate is the man who is constantly afraid." (4) In contrast, the Propeht Isaiah says; "those from Zion who are afraid are sinners." (5) The Gemara explains that the verse in Proverbs is referring to 'divrei Torah'. Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that 'divrei Torah' can be understood to refer to spiritual matters. We only have control over our free will in spiritual pursuits - thus, The Gemara is telling us that it is correct to fear one's own failure in the spiritual realm because we have control over it and have the ability to falter. However, in all other areas we know that God is in total control and since He is all-giving and all-powerful, it is foolish and wrong to be afraid that 'bad things' will happen to us - when Hashem is in control nothing genuinely 'bad' can happen, it may seem that way at the time, but we know that ultimately there is nothing to be afraid of when God is directing matters. The only thing we need to be afraid of is ourselves and the damage we can do to ourselves.
Another Gemara shows further how important it is to fear the consequences of our actions: The Gemara in Gittin recounts the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and how the baseless hatred in that story caused the chain of events that ended with the tragic destruction of the Temple. As an introduction to this tragic episode the Gemara quotes the aforementioned verse in Proverbs that extols the virtues of fear.(6) How is the idea of fear connected to the events of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza episode? Tosefot explain that the people who sinned in the story should have been more fearful of the consequences of their actions such as allowing Bar Kamtza to be embarrassed in public without interceding. Had they been more vigilant about the results of their actions they would have realized that they should act differently. We see from here the significance of fearing ourselves - it was their lack of such fear that enabled the tragic mistakes to unfold.
These Gemaras teach us that whenever we have free will in a situation we must be fearful to not stumble but when there is nothing that can be done then it is wrong to have fear, and we should place our trust in God. The Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Solovetichik, was famous for his fear of not performing mitzvot properly but at the same time, he remained remarkably calm when there was nothing he could do. Rav Shlomo Lorincz tells over that during the siege of the Jerusalem in Israel's War of Independence the Brisker Rav would stay very calm even whilst the city was being bombarded with shells. Yet, when the shelling ceased, he would immediately become very agitated with concern for those far away. Asked to explain the contrast in his behavior, he responded that when the shells were falling nearby, he was in a position of an ones - one who is in a situation that is out of their control - and thus freed from any obligation to assist others. Since he had not responsibility, he had no tension. But when his neighborhood was not being shelled, he could not stop thinking about what he might be able to do for those in danger, and the matter gave him no rest.(7) The Brisker Rav was in tune with the appropriate times to be fearful and to be calm, when there was nothing he could do then he was very calm, but whilst a responsibility lay upon him he would not relax.
This lesson is very pertinent as we approach Elul. At this time of year we asses our lives and our behavior - a key aspect of that is to recognize that we have the great gift of free will but that is accompanied by the fact that we cannot rely on God to force us to make the correct decisions. Our control over our actions is cause of great fear - it means that we can ignore the opportunities that God gives us, misuse our talents and generally fail to fulfill our potential in life. But if we become aware of our potential to make the right decisions and begin the slow path upwards in our Service of God, then we have nothing to fear.
1. Eikev, 10:20.
2. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 431. There is considerable discussion about how we can constantly fulfill several Mitzvot at the same time.
3. Brachos, 60a.
4. Mishlei, 28:14.
5. Yeshaya, 33:14.
6. Gittin, 55b.
7. Lorincz, In Their Shadow (B'Mechistatam), p. 167.