Dear Jew in the City-
It seems a little scary to fear God. How am I supposed to have a good relationship with a Being of Whom I’m terrified?
Thanks for your question, which is not an uncommon one. The problem here boils down to one of linguistics. I’ll illustrate.
In my capacity as an editor, I have long imposed a moratorium on the adjective “awesome.” The original meaning of “awesome” was “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” The power of God, for example, is awesome. One might say that the majesty of the Grand Canyon is awesome, though I, personally, would prefer “awe-inspiring.” If you say that your sandwich is “awesome,” that tells me nothing about the sandwich, though it does tell me that you have an incredibly low threshold for awe. Through overuse, the word has gotten watered down, so if anyone wrote an article that an event was awesome and everyone had an awesome time, I would send it back so that they could use adjectives that actually tell me something.
Similarly, you’re working under the assumption that “fear of God” means to be in terror of God. It doesn’t. This assumes that the translation of “yirah” is properly “fear” and that the meaning of “fear” when the Bible was translated hundreds of years ago was the same as it is today. As with “awesome,” a lot of water has gone under that bridge over the years and the way we read may not reflect the intention of what was written. When I write about this obligation, I prefer to translate “yirah” as “reverence” rather than “fear.”
The mitzvah to “fear” (i.e., revere) God is conceptually similar to another mitzvah: the obligation to “fear” our parents (Lev. 19:3). Do you really think that we’re meant to be in terror when our parents enter the room? That we should cower under the kitchen table? Clearly not. Rather, the intention is that we defer to them. This means things like we don’t contradict our parents or sit in their designated places.
Before we are commanded to “fear” (revere) God, we are commanded to love Him (Deut. 6:5). This mitzvah requires us to familiarize ourselves with God and His works. If we get to know Him, we won’t be able to help but love Him. This love will then arouse us to tell others all about Him.
Later (Deut. 10:20), we are commanded to “fear” (revere) God. The Sefer HaChinuch explains this mitzvah as follows: The best thing for us to do is to perform mitzvos from a love of God. An awareness that He loves us and gave us the Torah in order to benefit us should be all that’s necessary to motivate us to do His will. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, sometimes a carrot isn’t enough. Sometimes we need a stick. Because of this reality, a healthy “fear” can be an effective deterrent to wrongdoing. Having this “fear” of God is intended to help keep us from straying off the proper path.
Are you scared of the police? Leaving the matter of some racial tensions aside, I would assume that most of us are not. We can walk down the street and pass a cop on the beat without experiencing the rapid heartbeat, sweating or trembling that one might have upon passing a street gang or a vicious dog. Sometimes, we actively seek out the police, be it to report a crime or to ask for assistance. What did children’s TV teach us? “The policeman is your friend.” Nevertheless, if you see a police cruiser, you’re going to slow your car down or not roll through that changing traffic light. This isn’t because you’re terrified of the police (again, certain extreme situations notwithstanding), it’s because seeing them reminds you that our misdeeds can have consequences.
That’s what “fear” of God is for. We’re supposed to get to know Him and to love Him. And if humans were perfect, that would be all we need. But humans aren’t perfect. Therefore, we sometimes need to see the police car to remind us to slow down and to stop at the light. Terror is not required, nor is it desirable.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent