Do you fear Gd? Are there times when you do the right thing just because you think Gd may be watching? It’s easy to understand and respect those who love Gd because of all the blessings life has showered upon them. But it’s hard—with our modern sensibilities of liberalism and pluralism—to understand those who fear Gd.
Compounding this difficulty are those who do terrible things in this world because they say they fear their Gd. This week’s massacre of 12 in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication, is a case in point. Why were they killed? Because the perpetrators say they feared Allah who taught them to forbid any pictures of their prophet Mohammad which Charlie Hebdo had published. The killers were caught yesterday and killed in a shootout while their compatriots took hostages in a kosher deli/supermarket to use them as insurance for their friends’ release. They wound up killing 4 of them. Can you imagine the fear of the Jewish community in Paris as only a few hours before Shabbos Jews were taken hostage and killed in a kosher deli there? Rabbis in France have advised people to not attend services over Shabbos and shules were closed out of a real fear for terrorist attacks.
The problem was that these killers thought they feared their Gd, but in reality their actions were motivated by hatred. No Gd would ever look kindly upon the taking of lives because of a cartoon—no matter how offensive! Perhaps what is really needed in the world today is a genuine fear of Gd—a fear that we will face severe consequences if we don’t act kindly, compassionately and lovingly to our fellow man.
There’s a fascinating parallel between the end of the book of Genesis we completed last week and the beginning of the book of Exodus we began this morning. Genesis deals with creation—the creation of the universe and the creation of a family. In a very real sense, it seems that it was far more difficult for the patriarchs and matriarchs to forge a family than it was for Gd to forge the world. The book of Exodus takes the next step. It deals with the creation of a nation formed from that family—the family of Abraham.
Fear of Gd is a theme in both books. In today’s parsha Pharaoh is anxious to destroy the Jewish nation even before it comes into being, and so he introduces his version of the “final solution”: all Jewish males are to be killed at birth, cast into the Nile. He enlists Jewish “Kapos” to do his dirty work—Shifra and Pua, the head midwives. However, the Torah (1:17) tells us, “The midwives feared Gd, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” Since they were clearly putting their own lives at risk by defying Pharaoh, the Torah (1:20-21) then tells us, “Gd was good to the midwives...And it came to pass because the midwives feared Gd, He made them houses.” The midwives acted compassionately because they feared Gd. This is what it means to fear Gd—to act with compassion and kindness.
A few chapters before the story of the midwives, Joseph, in resisting the seduction of his master Potiphar’s wife, tells (Gen. 39:8-9) her: “Behold my master...has put all that he has into my hand...neither has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How can I then do this great evil?” Had he ended his plea with this it would certainly have been sufficient. But Joseph adds one more telling phrase: “How can I do this great evil, and sin against Gd.” Later (Gen. 42:18) Joseph describes himself 1st and foremost as “one who fears Gd.”
But what really is “fear of Gd”? Is it just doing the right thing because you fear Gd will punish you if you don’t? Few people live their lives today with concern for punishment in an afterlife, and even fewer fear being struck down by lightening upon committing a transgression. So what truly constitutes fear of Gd?
Before I answer, I’d like to point out unique aspect of fear. The human nervous system apparently makes choices as to what to fear at any given moment. The Midrash demonstrates this with the example of a person known to fear dogs running smack into a pack of dogs. His friend confronts him, “I don’t understand, aren’t you afraid of dogs?”
“Yes,” he answers, “but look behind me.”
Sure enough, looming closer and closer, are a pack of hungry lions! The fear of the lions was so strong that it trumped the fear of dogs. The larger fear dissipated the lesser one.
I once heard Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, z”l, former dean of Yeshiva University and modern Orthodoxy, say with his finger twisting in his unique way, I am not a psychiatrist nor the son of a psychiatrist, but I know one thing, everyone fears: fear of sickness, of aging, fear of dying, the fear of rejection, of loneliness, loss of position, loss of money, loss of someone close. [Now we can add, fear of terrorism—whether it be a shooting like in Paris, a bomb, biological or nuclear terror.] Who doesn’t fear? But there is one fear that has the power to remove all of the lesser fears that lurk on the horizon that threaten to wreak havoc in our lives, and that’s the fear of Gd.
When the Torah (Deut. 6:13) commands us, Et Hashem Elokecha tira, “Hashem your Gd you shall fear,” its intention is not to fill us with anxiety and dread, but to give us a mechanism to remove our lesser fears. Strange as it is to say, Gd’s command to fear Him is thereby an expression of His love, a precious gift. If we understand that the purpose of life is to grow a soul, then we can look upon all the challenges that life confronts us with not fearfully, but as opportunities for growth. If we live our lives in fear of Gd, then we always know He is with us, and we can say as it says at the end of the Adon Olam prayer, Hashem li v’lo ira, “Gd is with me so I will not fear!”
Anatoly Sharansky—now known as Natan Sharansky— was tortured physically and mentally by the KGB. They moved him from security prisons to insane asylums, but they could not break his spirit. While in prison, in one of his letters he wrote, “How can I beat the KGB? The answer is in The Book of Proverbs: Reyshit chochma yirat Hashem, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Gd,’” because fear in a higher power removes lesser fears.
King David in the famous Psalm 23 states, Gam ki eyleych b’gey tzlmavet, lo ira ra ki ata imadi, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil for Thou art with me.” Notice he does not deny death, but because he fears Gd, the fear of death is abated.
So what truly constitutes the fear of Gd? 1st of all, the word for fear, yira, also means, “awe.” To fear Gd means to be in awe of Him and the world He created—to see Gd in everything and everywhere. Secondly, to fear Gd means that there will be consequences—possibly severe consequences—if we don’t behave in a Gdly manner, if we are not compassionate towards our fellow man, if we don’t use the bounty Gd has showered us with to help others, if we ignore His Torah and commandments that were given to us for our own benefit, if we are hateful and bear a grudge, if we are spiteful and if we act with prejudice and—most important of all—if don’t treat other human beings like the image of Gd they are. To fear Gd is to act with compassion and not with hate or ego. No, the terrorists in Paris did not fear their Gd or any other. They selfishly acted out of hate and failed to see the image of Gd in others.
I pray that Gd help us to always act with the fear of Gd and may Gd protect us from those who do not. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis