What does it mean to fear God?
Shabbat Vayelech/Shabbat Shuvah 5780
One word appears like a thread in our sidra and throughout this season. It is the Hebrew word YRA usually translated ‘to fear’ or ‘to be in awe of’. These days, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. Our Sidra talks about fearing God. At the same time it tells us, twice, ‘Be strong and of good courage, do not fear, for God will go before you.’
Amongst the hardest concepts for 21st century Jews to grasp is this idea of yir’at haShem, the fear of God- which is expressed as ‘fear of the name’ because even to speak the Divine name was held in awe and trepidation. It was fundamental to our ancestors faith. On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah. At the end of the story, Abraham was told, ‘Ki ata yadati ki y’rei elohi ata ׀ - now I know that you are God-fearing. Why did God know that Abraham was God-fearing? Because he was willing to slay his son Isaac. What sort of fear must this be, that Abraham had to be willing to kill his son to prove it? Yet throughout subsequent generations, yir’at haShem was seen as the mark of a righteous man or woman. If someone was God-fearing, then they could be relied on to behave justly and mercifully, to do what is right.
This is because yir’at haShem is more than simple fear. The Book of Proverbs tells us: Yir’at Adonai reishit chochmah - the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Yir’at haShem is an attitude of mind. It is an awareness of God’s awesome presence in the world. As we say in the Kedushah, m’lo kol ha-aretz k’vodo - the whole earth is full of God’s glory. It is as much a sense of wonder as a sense of fear, an awareness of the beauty and greatness of the universe - as the Psalmist says, ‘The heaven’s proclaim God’s glory.’ If God’s creation is so amazing, how much more so must its Creator be. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century rabbi, writes: ‘Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things… Awe… enables us to see in the world intimations of the divine.’
From this sense of God’s presence springs a sense that everything we do matters. Each good deed has an importance for the good of the world, each bad deed harms the world. That is a sense that is very much heightened at this time. Two metaphors symbolise these days. The first is a book in which our deeds are recorded and our fate written and then, at Yom Kippur, sealed. The second is of our deeds being weighed in a scale. As Maimonides explains, for most people, good and bad deeds are finely balanced, and one deed can sway the scales either way. We do not need to take the metaphors literally to feel the weight of these days, to feel that our repentance and prayers do matter, and can make a difference to how we live our lives in the year to come. The sense of awe that these days bring can give us not only fear but also hope and strength as we approach Yom Kippur.
For Yir’at haShem is not like any other fear. Normally, fear and love do not accompany each other. Yet Judaism talks not only of Yir’at haShem but also of Ahavat haShem, love of God. In the Shema, we read ‘v’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha - you shall love the Eternal One your God.’ Throughout the Torah, God is described as loving and compassionate. In a beautiful symmetry, the rabbis decided that the blessing before the Shema should thank God for the everlasting love that has been shown to us. If fear of God is hard to grasp, love of God can seem even harder. God can seem an abstract concept or a transcendent being, beyond the universe. Again, the rabbis help us to a different understanding: ‘If someone says they love God but do not love their fellow human being, you know they are lying.’ It is through loving our fellow human beings that we come to love God. That is the way we express our love and the way we experience God’s love. Judaism is not a religion that can be lived in isolation. It is through our loving relationships with each other that we come to love God.
The explorer John Muir wrote: ‘How wholly infused with God is this one big word of love that we call the world!’ The creation of the world was an expression of God’s love. When we look at the world around us, and when we experience what it is to love, we experience together both the awe and the love of God. In these Days of Awe, let us awaken ourselves to both. For in these days, we experience God’s nearness as at no other time. And as we experience God’s nearness, the words that were said to Joshua may be fulfilled for us: ‘Be strong and of good courage; do not fear. For the Eternal God goes before you and will not fail you or forsake you.’