| Eikev

One of the primary goals of the Torah is the inducement of fear of heaven. “Now what does Hashem, your G-d ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to walk in all his ways and to love him” (Devarim 10:12). For one who is blessed with truly having proper Yira'at Shamayim, fear of heaven, life's problems become so much easier to bear. We know that when a major crisis strikes, the minor concerns of life such as what type of car to buy, where to vacation, or even such issues of job security somehow pale in significance. Instead, we focus on the major crisis at hand, allowing nothing to interfere. 

As Jews, our single-minded focus must be keeping the Torah. Nothing can divert us from this path. Of course, life is full of challenges, but the imperative to fear G-d is so all-encompassing that, properly observed, our daily concerns will be much more manageable. One who fears G-d recognizes that everything in this world emanates from G-d's will, and while we may not understand why G-d chooses to allow certain things to happen, the fact that G-d is in total control should be a comforting thought.

Actually fearing G-d is a difficult task. Man has accomplished so much that we often feel we do not need G-d. We can't see, hear, or feel His Presence.

This is not a new problem. The Talmud relates that when Rav Yochanan ben Zackai was on his deathbed his students asked him for a bracha. He responded, "May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood" (Brachot 28b). When his students, disappointed with this rather simplistic answer, responded “ad kan” – is that all – he replied “halevai” – if only man would fear G-d as much as man! “Know that when one sins, one says, ‘no person should see me’”. We are concerned lest man find out about it, yet are often oblivious to the fact that G-d is watching.

When a person meticulously observes the rituals of Judaism, but is less than honest in business, can we say that there is fear of G-d? Of course, no believing Jew actually believes G-d is not watching, but that is how we often act. And it is actions that matter most.

Compounding the problem is the fact that we often misbehave and get away with it. G-d's punishments are often slow to materialize and, from a human perspective, are apparently applied sporadically.

Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was talking about the greatest rabbis of his generation – the likes of Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elezar ben Arach (see Pirkei Avot 2:7). If fear of heaven was a problem for these great Sages, what can be expected from us? Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that some of the most basic mitzvot are the hardest to keep. And it is the basics on which we must focus[1].

While there has been a tremendous increase in the observance of mitzvot and a tremendous growth of Torah learning, this has not been accompanied by an increased awareness of the presence of G-d. Do we tremble when we hear the shofar[2]? Do we change our behaviour when Elul arrives? Have we internalized the fact that G-d determines on Rosh Hashanah whether we will live or die? We have somehow managed to separate the observance of mitzvot from the G-d who commanded them[3]. We may have many very observant people, but we have few religious personalities.

The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) relates that Chizkiyahu, with the approval of the Sages, hid a leading medical textbook in order to induce people to realize that while doctors and medications are a means to a cure, it is G-d Who is the Ultimate Healer[4]. Sadly, the advances of science make it much easier for people to forget the Creator of science. While this was an extreme measure, it underlined a serious problem, one that has been compounded many times in our own age. Thank G-d we have advanced to the point where man can accomplish so much. Yet only “fools” place their ultimate trust in man. We must remember that it is fear of G-d that allows us to rise above the man-made problems of life.


[1] It is for this reason that Jewish tradition is most wary of chumrot. Too often they serve as a cover for other areas – much more basic areas – where one is weak. I recall often that when we would ask Rav Schachter if we should adopt a chumrah he mentioned, he would answer along the lines of 'are you keeping all the basic halachot?' And the example he would often use is that of our monetary dealings.   

[2] As Rav Soloveitchik notes, on the Yamim Noraim and only on the Yamim Noraim do we pray for pachad, actual fear and trembling in the presence of G-d, that our life is in danger. Yira’at Hashem referred to here is probably better translated as awe of heaven.  

[3] It is with this point that Haym Soloveitchik ends his classic article, Rupture and Reconstruction.

[4] The Rambam had a very different understanding, arguing that the book was hidden because it contained bad medicine. As the Rambam notes, it is forbidden to rely on Talmudic medicine which, while it was the best they had, would have been malpractice by the 12th century. And, by the 21st, much (but not all) of the Rambam’s medicine would also be considered malpractice.