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Parashat 08/10/2011

Parashat V’Etchanan

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Would that their hearts would always be thus, to fear/be in awe of Me…(5:26)

And you shall love H” your Gd… (6:5)

Do His Will out of love.  The one who does [Gd’s Will] out of love cannot be compared to one who does it out of fear/awe (Rashi)

Remember Shabbat to sanctify it.  (Shemot 20:8)

Guard Shabbat to sanctify it.  (5:12)

Turn away from evil and do good (Tehillim 34:16)

Perhaps the ultimate question everyone faces is “How am I supposed to relate to Gd?”  Gd is the ultimate reality, we are limited, finite creatures.  Gd is transcendent, we have moments of transcendence.  Gd created the universe, yet He is beyond it; we live in the universe and can barely conceive what it might mean to be beyond it.  Gd is completely and radically different from us, yet the whole purpose of our creation is so that we can come into a relationship with Gd.  How are we to understand this – it seems like an impossible dream!


Our tradition appears to take two tacks in answering this question.  The first is the approach of yira’ or fear/awe.  The root of the word actually is related to the root for seeing, and in fact it is after the nation “sees” Gd at Mt. Sinai that they approach Moshe Rabbeinu, tell him that the experience was too much, and ask him to be their intercessor.  Gd heartily approves and suggests that the fear/awe that they are experiencing is an altogether healthy thing.  In English we have the expression “to put the fear of Gd into somebody,” implying that lack of such a fear is not a good thing.  What is the nature of this fear that makes it something desireable?


There are two levels of “fear” of Gd.  The lower level is fear of punishment.  Gd has laid down the Law, and it is up to us to obey it – if not, there are unpleasant consequences.  This level of fear is better than nothing at all; it has its value if it prevents us from transgressing.  When Avraham misled Avimelech into thinking Sarah was his sister, Avimelech demanded to know what Avraham saw that brought him to do such a thing.  Avraham replied: rak ayn yir’at Elokim bamakom hazeh – simply there is no fear of Gd in this place.  Malbim comments that even cultured people who intellectually establish righteous norms of behavior, but do not have a deeply ingrained fear of Gd, cannot be trusted actually to behave properly when overcome by desires or fears.  Germany was one of the most cultured nations in the world, with outstanding moral philosophers, yet they produced Hitler.  Japan and China have some of the world’s oldest civilizations, yet their human rights records are not the best.  A person or a nation with fear of Gd will not violate Gd’s Will, and therefore will not behave inappropriately.


A higher level of “fear” of Gd is perhaps better translated as “awe,” and it is this aspect that is related to “seeing.”  We can’t “see” Gd of course, but we can certainly see and comprehend how Gd acts in the creation.  And when we do begin to understand more and more of creation, we become more and more awestruck at the infinite power and intelligence that is displayed before us.  This generates the lower fear to some extent, as one surely does not want to cross an all-knowing, all-powerful Being.  More important however, is that the awe generated by our perception of Gd’s majesty leads to the second approach to relating to Gd – love of Gd.


Rambam describes the relationship of awe and love in Mishne Torah (Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 2:2, quoted in Iggeret haRamban by R. Avrohom Chaim Feuer):

When [a person] comtemplates Gd’s handiwork, and anayzes His amazing and wondrous creations, he witnesses Gd’s wisdom which has no measure or limit.  Immediately he is filled with love and praise for Gd and yearns to know Him…

Of course a human being can never truly know Gd; we have enough trouble truly knowing ourselves.  We can come closer to Gd however, and just as in human relationships, it is love which is the unifying factor.  Love is what draws us near to the beloved, to think about the beloved all the time, to concern ourselves with their welfare, simply to be with our beloved.  Thus one who serves Gd out of love is doing so with a positive motivation, the desire to be close to Gd, to align ourselves with Gd, as opposed to the negative motivation of avoiding offending Gd.


Both these approaches are enshrined in Jewish Law.  Of the 613 commandments of the Torah, 365 are negative commandments; these are actions we avoid and represent the fear aspect of our relationship with Gd.  The other 248 (corresponding to the traditional number of members of the body) are positive commandments.  They are there to refine and culture all aspects of our personality so that we begin more and more to feel Gd’s love for us, and open ourselves up to loving Gd in return.  In some cases the same activity has both aspects.  For example, in the version of the 10 Commandments in our Parashah, we are told to guard the Sabbath, that is, to refrain from desecrating it.  In Exodus, when we stood at Mt. Sinai, we were told to remember the Sabbath – that is, we were given the positive commandment to make Shabbat special, by saying Kiddush, wearing our good clothes, eating finer foods than during the rest of the week, etc.  Rashi tells us that in fact Gd spoke both words (shamor/guard and zachor/remember) in one utterance (as we sing every Erev Shabbat in the hymn L’cha dodi).  In Exodus, when we were at a higher level, we heard the positive commandment; we were told to relate to Gd on the level of love.  Now, 40 years and many sins later, we are enjoined to refrain from desecrating Shabbat, a lower, but still very necessary level of observance.


Ultimately we need to relate to Gd using both modalities.  We must love Gd; the whole purpose of our existence is to draw close to Gd.  But we must approach Gd with reverence, awe and humility, or, like Nadav and Avihu, we will be burned up by his effulgence which we are not equipped to handle in our mortal bodies.  Gd in His great goodness and mercy has created us with the ability to approach Him, and has given us a balanced program to do so gradually, safely.  We have just come through the Three Weeks, when we experience the terrible consequences of failing to fear Gd.  Soon we will be called to judgment before Gd’s Throne.  If we make use of our time wisely, we can expect to be received in Gd’s loving embrace.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 2

Ben Azzai says: Hasten to fulfill even a light mitzvah and flee from transgression.  For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah and a transgression brings another transgression.  The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah and the recompense of a transgression is a transgression.

King David said Turn away from evil and do good.  Ben Azzai elaborates: When we turn away from evil the first time, it makes it easier to turn away again; resisting temptation makes temptation easier to resist.  On the other side of the coin, training ourselves to perform Gd’s mitzvot gets us into the habit of doing mitzvot – each one becomes easier to summon up the energy to do.  Since each mitzvah brings us closer to Gd, which is the ultimate in spiritual pleasure, each step we take draws us further in this positive direction.  This is the ultimate positive feedback loop!