If you had an intentional choice to make, would you choose fear? A Talmudic source believes that fear is the basis for our healthy choices.
An angel by the name of Layla is appointed over pregnancy. The angel takes a drop [of semen], holds it up before the Creator and says ‘Master of the Universe, what will become of this drop: courageous or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?’ The angel does not say ‘evil or righteous,’ as we learn from the words of rabbi Hanina who said ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except fear of heaven.’ (Nida 16b)
The classical commentator rabbi Shlomo Yithaki (Rashi) explains,
Whether you are tall or short, poor or rich, intelligent or not, white or black is all in the hands of heaven. The one thing you can choose is whether you will be a good person or a bad person. That is up to you. God placed two paths in front of you. It is for you to choose the path called fear of heaven.
So fear of heaven is a choice, and it is actually the only choice we have.
What is fear of heaven? We know what fear is. Fear paralyzes us. It makes us give in to social pressure, delude ourselves and trample every value in order to gain power. We bow down to the dictates of political correctness so that we will ‘fit in’. In an attempt to ‘save face’ we lose our human face.
It is no wonder then, that we recoil from the concept ‘fear of heaven.’ It contains the word ‘fear’. But is fear of heaven the same as fear of things or of people?
The Biblical verse says “Do not curse the deaf and do not put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your Lord, I am God” (Leviticus 19:14) Rashi explains
Other people cannot know whether this person’s intentions were good or bad. This allows him to shirk his responsibility and claim he had good intentions. Therefore it is written ‘You shall fear your God’ - who knows your thoughts. Similarly, every place where the Torah speaks about what is in a person’s heart, where only that person can know and no one else can know, it is written “You shall fear your God.”
Only God knows what is in your heart. Even if you want to say you don’t believe in God, who is the God you don’t believe in? You don’t believe in the man in the sky with a long white beard meting out punishments, but do you think you can hide existentially from the truth that you did not act with integrity? You cannot hide from yourself. As medical intuitive Carolyn Myss notes, ‘Liars don’t heal.’ Dishonesty takes an emotional, spiritual and even physical toll. This series of commandments is instructing us not to hide, but to act with honesty and integrity. We still have to clarify who is God and what is your relationship to God, but this is the nature of the fear.
A paradigmatic example can be found in the Biblical account of the children of Israel when they were enslaved in Egypt.
The midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah were ordered to kill the baby boys the moment they were born. The baby girls could be saved. This way Pharaoh thought he could avoid the eventuality of the birth of Moses, who would redeem them. But they refused to obey Pharaoh's orders.
It says, ‘The midwives feared God and did not kill the infant boys.’ (Exodus 1:15)
They were beholden to a higher standard than the laws of the land. They were answerable to a moral law. Pharaoh is telling them to destroy life but deep within their hearts they know that they must preserve life! How many noble individuals throughout history until today have spoken out for truth and refused to allow evildoers get away with fraud and murder! They chose fear.
The verses continue and say, ‘Therefore, he built households for them.’
The hasidic commentary, Mordechai Yosef Leiner (the “Ishbitzer”) explains,
When a person has fear of another human being of flesh and blood he has no sense of security because fear instills the opposite of security. However, fear of G-d brings serenity. We can learn this from the words “He made for them houses.” A house is a place where one feels secure. Because they were God-fearing they felt secure. Thus, they did not fear Pharaoh's decree. Consequently, “He made for them houses.”
Fear of other people creates emotional reactivity. We feel threatened and we act in ways that go against our conscience. Fear of God is not fear at all, rather courage, the courageous stand taken when one listens to one’s conscience.
Viktor Frankl ended his book Man’s Search for Meaning with a message that captured all that he stood for.
The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore -- except his God (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 100: 2008)
Fear of God banishes all other fears. After all they had done to him what more did Frankl have left to fear? Refined in the furnace of the concentration camps, nothing could take away the inner freedom to be who he is. Once he had been stripped of absolutely everything, all that remained was his bare naked existence. After everything had been taken away, what remained was simply what he stood for and who he was meant to be in the world. This, no one could take away from him. He could look back and be satisfied with what he had made of his life.
Fear of heaven is the moral fortitude that steels a person in the face of coercion or a forced struggle for attention. You stand in readiness for whatever task life brings you and you say ‘Yes!’ to it. As expressed so beautifully in Teria Shantall’s newly published book,
But what is our say in the matter? Do we have a choice? Who is the Playwright? Are we not able to change the plot, define our own roles in it? What about writing our own play; feature ourselves in it the way we would like to play out our lives? Oh yes, we do have a say and we do have a choice. We can say: “Yes!” or “No” to our callings in life ~ The Life-Changing Impact of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy, Teria Shantall, p. 248