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Sep 01st
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Trembling, awe, ethics: ‘Fear of G-d’

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THERE is no word for “accountability” in Hebrew, which, it has been suggested, is why Israeli bureaucracy runs amok, stopping people from accomplishing the simplest tasks, like getting an appointment to see a doctor.

Perhaps the ultimate translation of “accountability” would be “fear of G-d” — fear of punishment and embrace of reward. Especially in an age of ersatz “self-esteem,” fear of G-d in the sense of fear of punishment is often dismissed or derogated. Love of G-d is almost automatically invoked at the mere mention of fear of G-d; love of G-d is taken as the superior, almost the required, alternative.

As if fear and love of G-d were unrelated.

As if it were possible to love G-d without fearing G-d, as if it were possible to fear G-d without loving G-d.

Not to mention, “fear of G-d” connotes more than fear of punishment. Fear of G-d means “fear of Divine majesty.” Awe. Radical amazement. Overwhelming humility at the seashore, at the summit of a tall mountain, in the presence of a uniquely red-orange descending sun.

As we move on to these things — and still other connotations of fear of G-d — in this column, we should not put aside fear of Divine punishment so quickly. Fear has its critical place.

EXAMPLE: Traffic laws. How often do we hear of a tragic death, of the unimaginable waste of a human life and the incalculable pain among survivors, due to a speeding, reckless or drunk driver?

Admit it. When a police car comes within sight, all the surrounding drivers tend to slow down. This is not because they are suddenly filled with appreciation for the wisdom behind traffic laws. It’s because of fear of punishment: a ticket, a fine, a morning in court, a possible loss of one’s driver’s license.

Very, very rare is the human being who does the right thing just because it’s the right thing. That looming traffic ticket — fear of punishment — plays a very positive role in reducing the chances of accidents, of injury, of economic loss, of loss of time and, ultimately, of tragic loss of life.

It should be no different, and is no different, in relation to G-d. Very, very rare is the human being who can serve the Alm-ghty just because it’s the right thing. In relation to G-d, there is accountability. It is not a secondary or inferior aspect of fear of G-d.

ALL this said, fear of G-d is, to be sure, broader than fear of punishment, and this in two directions: toward the elevation of the human being, and toward the abnegation of the human being. Up, and down, if you will.

Up: Awe at the Divine majesty simultaneously reduces a person almost to nothing given the overwhelming majesty and incomprehensible size of the universe. Its vast distances. Its ever renewing beauties. Its barren peaks, lush valleys and ageless trees and skies; its stars and fireballs and rings around Saturn, is sparkling orbs and mysterious black holes. Reduced almost to nothing in the presence of G-d’s awesome universe, the human being is simultaneously enlarged, empowered, expanded, endowed with an outreaching and all embracing sense that he or she experiences in no other way, at no other time.

Awe at the Divine majesty is a form of fear of G-d, no less than fear of Divine punishment.

Down: Rabbi Harold B. Kanatopsky, in a 1969 essay in Gesher, did not flinch from articulating the direct opposite sense of fear of G-d, opposite the awe of Divine majesty. A type of fear of G-d that is even more challenging than fear of Divine punishment. Poignantly and powerfully, Kanatopsky articulated the existential sense of fear of G-d:

“Fear of G-d, again as defined by the Rambam [Maimonides] in the Mishneh Torah [Maimonides’ code], goes much further than fear of punishment. The experience here is not to be confused at all with awe and respect. While these may have their place in the total spectrum of man’s relationship to G-d, what is meant here is something quite different. It is the recognition of my worthlessness and total dependence. It is the realization that all my faculties are worthless in the presence of G-d. It is a deep-rooted fear or dread in the presence of the Omnipotent and of the Alm-ghty. It is, if you will, the recognition that Ein Od Milvado: Nothing really exists save G-d. Man remains passive, immobile, frozen in his tracks when this dreadful realization overpowers him. This is fear of G-d in the ultimate sense. It is the negation of my existence.”

FINALLY, there is fear of G-d in the ethical sense. It is articulated in this week’s Torah portion.

One of the toughest commandments of the Torah is to give people unbiased advice. It may be unbiased and still off the mark — good judgement is always required, and not necessarily abundant. Be that as it may, the demand to advise others without thinking how they may benefit me requires self-control and altruism. Advice, says the Torah, is to benefit someone else, not me.

Here is how the Torah puts it in this week’s portion:

“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind; and you shall fear your G-d, I am the L-rd” (Leviticus 19:14).

Not to place a stumbling block before the blind is to be taken both literally and figuratively. In its figurative sense, it means: Don’t intentionally give bad advice. Don’t lead people down the wrong path.

The question is: If you do intentionally give bad advice, who’s to know? You’re obviously not telling anyone — certainly not the person you’re trying to mislead, and probably not anyone else, lest it get back to your advisee and ruin your selfish plan.

That is what the conclusion of the verse says: “You shall fear your ?G-d.” Meaning, G-d will know if you intentionally mislead someone. Maybe you are not telling a soul, but G-d knows. That is why the advice-giver must fear G-d. That becomes the ultimate barrier against intentionally misleading, manipulating or exploiting a position of trust.

That is the ethical sense of fear of G-d.

FEAR of G-d, in other words, is a complexity of religious emotions, often simultaneous, embracing every sense of human greatness, fragility and ethical obligation.

Fear of G-d takes one directly to G-d as one closes one’s eyes and contemplates one’s intractable inadequacies and endless spiritual hopes; as one opens one’s eyes to the vast, kaleidoscopic and resplendent world around us; as one reaches lovingly toward the Creator in gratitude, grace and fear; and as one stands before another human being seeking your best advice, thereby requiring your deepest honesty.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News


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