Rav Kook On Parshat Ekev: How To Fear HaShem Fearlessly
In Parshat Ekev- Moshe Rabbenu continues to recount the tumultuous history of Israel and the significant contribution of the Torah’s ‘mitzvot-commandments’ in directing Israel in the path of goodness and holiness. In one central passage Moshe summarizes the conclusion that we must draw from all this:
“And now, O Israel, what does HASHEM your ELOHIM request of you?
Only to fear HASHEM your ELOHIM , to walk in all His paths, to love Him, and to serve the HASHEM your ELOHIM with all your heart and soul, keeping HASHEM’s commandments and laws, which I am enjoining upon you today, for your own good.” (Dvarim 10:12)
The first step in this spiritual request is ‘יראת השם-Fear of HASHEM’. What is true fear of HaShem? This is a concept and a requirement that can be very misunderstood.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook reflects on a Talmudic midrash as he teaches about the right and wrong way to fear God. The Midrash states:
“Abayeh used to say: One must always be עָרוּם בְּיִרְאָה- sensible in fear of HASHEM
One can then fulfill the verse: “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1) and take steps to increase peace with one’s brethren and with one’s relatives, and with all people, even with a non-Jew in the marketplace, so that he will be loved above in HASHEM’s eyes, pleasant below in the eyes of the people, and acceptable to all of HASHEM’s creatures.” (Brachot 17:a)
Rav Kook explains:
“There is a difference between someone who fears God according to their intellect and one who is only reliant on their subjective power of imagination.
The perspective ruled by imagination imagines that the only focus in fearing God is God and it does not have a connection to proper behavior, humanity and respect for all creatures. They think that since fear of God fills all one’s heart and feelings, there is no room in the heart for one’s obligations to humankind.
Someone who looks at fear of God from the perspective of the intellect recognizes that the purpose of fearing God is to motivate one to repair all their ways in the best and most fitting manner.
They will thus draw multitudes to true fear, devotion and paths of good.
Thus a person should not follow after their imaginary depiction, but after the guidance of their intellect regarding fear of God. They will then understand that the offshoots of true Divine fear are respecting all creatures and cultivating the paths of peace and proper behavior.
Then ‘your soft answers will turn away wrath,’ and you will ‘speak peacefully with your brother and relatives, with all humans-even a non-Jewish stranger in the market’.
The fear and cleaving to God will not prevent you from fulfilling these human obligations that are the splendorous crown of humanity. Through them we sanctify the Name of Heaven and increase true fear of God in the world…
The truly wise must investigate deeply with his intellect in order to purify their understanding without the garments of a false imagination. Then they will be truly called ערום-sensible in fear of God.” (Eyn Aya: Brachot 2-60)
There is a wise intelligent way of fearing HaShem that enhances life and there is a way of fearing HaShem that is distorted by our subjective imagination and reduces life.
Rav Kook elaborates and explains this further in his mussar-ethical masterpiece-Midot haRayah:The Moral Principles:
“The concept of the fear of God lends strength to the person who understands it in its purity. It endows life with meaning and great aspirations and with a level of spirituality which refines the potentialities of the soul with the light of holiness.
But for the foolish unwise the fear of God manifests in a confused way that engenders weakness and despair. This exerts a very bad influence and when it spreads, it inspires a rebellion against the discipline of Divine kingship by young people who have tasted life in its vitality. They rightfully seek a life free of timidity and fear, but rather abounding in confidence and courage….
Those who truly come close to God through the study of Torah and the quest for moral virtues- who are obviously far removed from evil deeds- must understand the concept of fear of God in terms that elevate and vitalize all the potentialities of the soul.
‘יראת רוממות שיש עמה אהבה ועדן פנימי, ‘והתענג על ד’ ויתן לך משאלות לבך’-They must define fear as awe, which bears with it love and inner delight. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will grant the petitions of your heart.” (Ps. 37:40)
If the fear of God arises in a person only in its external aspects, it will disorient them from reality. They will suffer a loss of will and independence….The person thus becomes enfeebled in life and their sense of social responsibilities are damaged. There is no vitality or will to perfect the life of society….
The fear of God’s punishment alone is like seeds, planted in a garden, which are not eaten, but are planted in a small, narrow row where they will not reach their full fruition…
An immature sense of the fear of God, in its refined aspect…vulgarizes the spirit by establishing a barrier between the person and the higher potency of the Divine realm, and deny them the enhancement and vitalization of life through the majesty of God…
The absence of clarity about fear of God weakens one’s faculties generally. It weakens the spiritual faculty, that is the essence of thought–while its mission was to only weaken the defective aspect of thought. It also weakens the physical faculty: the vitality of life, the desire for work and the zeal for accomplishment.
The proper perception must be restored to those who fear God…so that they know that the fear of God in its purity must add to our strength generally and bring to realization all desirable potentialities hidden in our nature. It must enhance our intellectual endeavors and our performance of good deeds.
The inhibiting objective of fear of God is directed only toward the evil dimension of our nature, the source of evil traits and defective actions. When life is purged of these, many good qualities develop, bringing with them great blessing….
Sometimes, the imagined subjective fear of God is more destructive than all illusory notions in the world….
It is essential to understand the fear of God properly and to conduct one’s life on that basis, in self-determination. This will result in the opening of doors toward lofty concerns…
The outer level of the fear of God alone [one motivated by the fear of retribution in this world or the hereafter] is not of much worth….
How much darkness comes into the world, and how many unfortunate ones are lost to Judaism and are grazing in alien fields from which there is no return, when this trait of fear of God is carried to an excessive self-depreciation to the point of avoiding altogether the probing of the hidden teachings of the Torah, of avoiding all investigations in the subjects of religious faith, and an exaggerated fear of all scientific research.
The spirit becomes soft like wax and is devoid of strength to respond to challenges with knowledge and understanding.” (from Midot HaRayah-Yiraah/Fear)
Rav Kook is emphasizing to us that if our fear of HaShem is only focused on the external fear of punishment then this “immature sense of the fear of God vulgarizes the spirit by establishing a barrier between the person and the higher potency of the Divine realm”
If our fear of God is only focused on the external fear of punishment than this “immature sense of the fear of God vulgarizes the spirit by establishing a barrier between the person and the higher potency of the Divine realm.”
It weakens our “faculties generally. It weakens the spiritual faculty, the essence of thought” and “it weakens the physical faculty. It weakens our “physical faculty- our vitality of life, our desire for work and our zeal for accomplishment.”
We must understand fear of God in a way that “endows life with meaning and great aspirations and with a level of spirituality which refines the potentialities of the soul with the light of holiness”.
We must confidently enact “the offshoots of true Divine fear by respecting all creatures and cultivating the paths of peace and proper behavior.”
Thus we will be blessed to fearlessly fear the Divine in ways that strengthen ‘love and inner light” and ‘elevate and vitalize all the potentialities of our soul.”
This truly fearless fear of HaShem will enable us to truly ‘walk in HASHEM’s paths, to love HASHEM and to serve HASHEM our ELOHIM with all our heart and soul, keeping HASHEM’s commandments and laws’.
BeMhera BeYamenu- Quickly and in our days.
Prepared by Rabbi Itzchak Evan-Shayish, [email protected], www.haorot.com . Please help us share these lights widely.