These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Essence of the Awe

Posted on March 11, 2013 by David Bogomolny

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I discovered the following text during an Ayeka session, and found it very challenging… then, in spiritual havruta, I fought with myself to think about this with an open mind, and I’d like to share my subsequent thoughts further below.

אור ישראל, הרבי מסאלאנט

Ohr Yisrael, Rav Yisrael of Salant

מהו מהות של יראת שמים?
“What is the essence of the fear/awe of Heaven?”
הנה ידוע כי יש שתי בחינות ביראת ה’. וחכמי היראה והמוסר יכנו אותם בשם: יראת העונש ויראת הרוממות.
It is known that there are two aspects of fearing God. The experts in this field call them: 1) Fear of Punishment, and 2) Awe of Reverence.
יראת העונש כפשוטה – שהאדם ירא מעבור את פי ה’ מפני העונשים אשר לעבירות, אם לגוף ואם לנפש.
The essence of Fear of Punishment is just as it sounds – that a person is afraid to transgress the word of God because of the punishments this will incur, whether to body or to soul.
ויראת הרוממות הוא שהאדם ירחק מן החטאים ולא יעשה מפני כבודו הגדול.
The Awe of Reverence is when a person distances himself from sin and will not transgress because of the great honor due to God.
אמנם אם כי תכלית יראת ה’ הוא בודאי המדרגה הגבוה של יראת מרוממות, אולם ידוע כי יראת ה’ ראשית דעת היא יראת העונש. כי מבלעדי יראת העונש לא יוכך לעלות כלל במעלות מדרגה העליונה של יראת הרוממות.
While the ideal goal of behavior is clearly when actions stem from the higher level of Awe of Reverence, the first step to reaching this level is nevertheless through Fear of Punishment. For without Fear of Punishment, a person will not be able to ascend to higher levels.
שאי אפשר לבוא תיכף למדרגה הגדולה הזאת של יראת הרוממות וצריך שנירא תחילה יראת העונש. וממנה נעלה אל מדרגה הרמה שהיא יראת הרוממות.
It is impossible to jump directly to the highest level of awe. One first has to experience the Fear of Punishment and from this level ascend to the more exalted place of Awe of Reverence.

I believe in a supernatural, omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent G-d. I believe that Hashem could do anything to me that Ze wants. G-d could, for example, eliminate my existence if Ze willed it. And the Almighty certainly could punish me.

But the truth is that I don’t feel that G-d will punish me. I feel that Hashem is absolutely understanding of me, and sympathetic towards me, and gentle and loving. I don’t feel the “Fear of Punishment” that R. Yisrael Salanter wrote about in the above text.

So, as I was hashing this out during my spiritual havruta, I thought of something that might (might!) begin to approach this “Fear” that I’m having such difficulty relating to:

My wife’s respect is incredibly important to me; I feel that I must strive to be worthy of her. I would go so far as to say that I fear disappointing her. Likewise, I realize that I am afraid of disappointing G-d. I don’t how I could live with myself if I felt (or somehow knew) that I wasn’t living up to Hashem’s standards.

I’m sure this isn’t the “Fear of Punishment” that R. Yisrael Salanter was describing above, but this is the closest that I’ve come to empathizing with his paradigm of relating to the Almighty.