Fear of God generates courage. Yet, it is still called fear.
People put their foot on the brake when the sign warns of a speed trap because they don’t want to get a ticket. In Jewish tradition, this is called fear of punishment. It is viewed as a lower spiritual level because it is egocentric. The driver would not be afraid if he didn’t think a camera was filming him. Even without a camera, knowing that someone is watching stops you. As the expression goes, ‘There is judgment and there is a judge.’ Fear creates accountability.
In contradistinction to fear of punishment is fear of sin. I am aware that I am capable of making a careless remark that can hurt someone or simply being oblivious to what is in front of me and causing grave damage. My inherent fallibility as a human being facing God who is all-powerful tells me what is at stake. It is best to be on guard.
Like the tin man:
Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. “You people with hearts,” he said, Have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful. (The Wizard of Oz, Reilly and Lee, 1956, p. 68)
The awareness of what is at stake is a deep, intuitive wisdom.
Fear is the deepest wisdom, based on the innermost world-view. It provides the foundation of depth to every science and every teaching, both sacred and non-sacred. (Musar Avicha, R. Kook)
Fear of God is the emotion that powers conscience, which is the wisdom of a higher perspective. The midwives in ancient Egypt had this wisdom. They were willing to risk their own lives in order to save the newborn Israelite boys because they could see something beyond themselves. To stifle one’s conscience is to create a rift between the individual and God and create an internal rift within one’s self.
Awe and reverence is the highest kind of fear. It is not a survival fear or a sense of the gulf between man and God but rather the retreat in the presence of greatness. How amazing is the world and the Creator who made it!
We will explore the three levels of fear through the following verse.
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God...(Devarim 10:12)
‘Only this’ implies a small request, no big deal, yet the prophet Isaiah calls fear ‘God’s treasure’ (33:6) which seems like a very big deal. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) answers through an analogy. If someone asks you for a container and you are able to provide it, then it’s a small thing to ask. If you are not able to provide it then it is a big thing to ask. For Moses fear of God was a small thing.
This seems an odd answer. The Torah was given to the entire nation, not just to Moses! The verse seems to be saying this is a small thing for the nation as well. But was it?
One explanation (Rashi) is that we always have two paths in front of us and all that is required for fear of God is to choose a path. It is not a lot to ask, to choose the right path at any given moment.
The renowned Talmudist rabbi Samuel Edeles (Maharsha) is not satisfied with Rashi’s explanation. He says that there are two different kinds of containers: a small container (fear of punishment) and a large container (intelligent fear). It’s enough for everyone to have self-restraint. From Moses God expects more.
Why is fear of God called a container? If all you operate on is survival instinct, then you will only fill the container with getting by with what doesn’t get you into trouble. Maybe you will be doing the right thing but you won’t live a very rich life. On the other hand a container of wise choices can be filled with meaning.
God is ‘only’ asking that we use our deepest wisdom to make intelligent choices. Only a free, self-determining being can have a genuine relationship with other people, with God and with his or herself.
The question remains: Was the nation as a whole capable of attaining this level of intelligent choice? The Maharsha gives an amazing answer. When the nation goes through hard times, their suffering will refine them and they will reunite with God. A genuine relationship requires awareness of an ‘other’ or ‘Other’ that exists outside yourself. As Frankl said, in order to find yourself you have to lose yourself. Apparently, the diminishment of self that comes through pain and suffering opens the way to an other-focus.
In the Jewish prayer book we say And whatever I have sinned before you, erase in your great compassion, only not through suffering and terrible sickness (Brachot 17a).
We don’t ask for suffering if we can avoid it, but if we can’t avoid it, we can use the opportunity to gain wisdom.