A couple of days ago during the Kauffman dinner I was asked questions
by people who came to support Leo Baeck College concerning the challenges I face in my studies. And I realized at that moment that one of my challenges is my Pastoral placement at North London Hospice. Each time I go there I am getting some experience as a future Rabbi, as a Jew and as a human being. I absorb this kind of knowledge through the stories of the people I meet. Many recognize that the experience of illness makes them ask important questions, to do a review of their lives both materially and spiritually. People are rethinking their priorities and even their values.
One day a man in the Hospice told me that his days were numbered, and he was trying to get as much as possible done while he still had time. It sounded very scary. He said that he was not afraid of death. He was never afraid of anything in his life. He was a very brave man, all his life he worked at a fire station. He started as a simple fireman, hundreds of times participated in fire suppression and saved the lives of many people. He was very brave and determined. Listening to him, I understood how proud he was of his life. And I realized, yes, he is afraid of nothing. After that we took a little walk in the garden, silently walking on the path. And suddenly he said that only the fear of God was what a person in his situation must be experiencing. I realized that he had not pronounced it before aloud, but he felt it important to say to me.
Parashat Behar presents laws regulating the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year, and also repeating details of the main holidays in the Jewish calendar. This parashah speaks strongly about the meaning of God’s ownership of the world and its people, our role as humanity and the justice that flows from taking our role seriously. And as a culmination, a quintessence of these laws is expressed for me in the words “You shall not cheat one another, and you shall fear your God for I am Adonai, your God.” 1
Does Judaism give us a chance to understand what “Yirat Hashem” means? Where does this fear derive from? When people first realized that there was a power in the world greater than him them they was filled with fear.
Judaism started in the same way; but gradually we began to realize that what was meant “fear” was perhaps not the best way to describe our relationship to God. For Judaism taught love and reverence for God. The Bible uses the phrase “Yirat Adonai”, which is usually translated as “Fear of the Lord”; but it can equally well be translated as “Reverence for God” and even “respect for God”.
Fear of God is a positive Commandment derived from the verse, “Fear only the Lord your God, and worship Him alone …” 2
This injunction is repeated many times in the Bible. According to Rashi, it related especially to those commandments which are “known to the heart,” to those deeds and sins that are not visible to others.
The Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot tells a story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai became ill, his students went in to see him and asked for a blessing from their teacher. He said: “May the fear of Heaven be upon you like the fear of human beings.” His students said to him, “Is that all?” He said to them, “Don’t you understand? When a man wants to commit a transgression, what does he say? ‘I hope nobody sees me!’ 3 . Because sometimes a person is more embarrassed to act in the face of humans than in the face of God.
The classic Jewish commentator Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, stressed the distinction between the lower level of “Yirat Shamayim”, the fear of punishment, (which certainly has its place in ethical training) and a higher level, which is to be suffused with awe and reverence for God and creation.
The highest level leads to a special condition referred to in the Psalms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” The Psalmist knows the value of a relationship to God.
Only deeply individual characteristics allow people to feel the awe of God, though these features can be developed if you work at it.
The people who do not believe in God, in principle, are not afraid of punishment for their actions. Those who stand at the beginning of their faith, do not sin, just in case. And those who believe don’t doubt in the omniscience of God.
You can be brave and not be afraid.
You can be afraid of everything.
You can be too afraid of specific things.
But you should have the fear of God even more.
Modern Progressive Jews should not just reject this notion with scepticism, but should struggle with it, trying to find their own answer. Because of this the Rabbis of the Talmud said that everything is in the power of God except for the fear of God.4 It seems as if God has reserved this piece of work for a human being, left as a free choice for us. If we do the work then we may be brought into the heart of Judaism and its relationship with God. If we do not then our Judaism is no longer God-centered and we lose the meaningfulness of our religion. And we find ourselves facing the difficulties alone, without God.
The laws of the Jubilee Year and the sabbatical of the land, together with the prohibition against charging interest to the needy warn us against greed or covetousness, for the value of a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. And probably this is precisely the time to think again about what your real values are in life and whether the choices you have made are the right ones.
1 Lev. 25:17
2 Deut. 6:13
3 B. Talmud, Berachot, 28b
4 B. Talmud, Berachot, 33b
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.