by Simon Jacobson
Organized religion is often denounced by skeptics as intent on suppressing logic and singular expression. The Biblical commandment to “fear G-d” is particularly condemned and trivialized as overemphasizing rule used to keep the faithful in order.
There is a well-known story about the famous 18th century Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was well known for his empathy and non-judgmental character. One Rosh Hashanah he invited his neighbor to come with him to synagogue. The neighbor declined, saying, “Rebbe, I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in G-d. It would be hypocritical of me to step foot in a synagogue.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak smiled and replied, “The G-d that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”
The Hebrew words commonly mistranslated as “fear of G-d,” are Yirat Shamayim which really mean “awe of heaven.” Fear has many negative, far-reaching implications. As a constant companion, fear can be extremely unhealthy, like the utter terror of a child cringing in fear of an alcoholic parent. Awe however, implies mystery and an awareness of something greater. When we stand before nature, or when we bask in the beauty of an artistic masterpiece, we stand in awe, indeed we’re uplifted by the knowledge that life is a gift.
Awe of G-d is the acknowledgement of the distance between man and his Creator, which only lifts man to greater heights. In no way does it minimize the human desire to achieve truth. On the contrary, “awe of heaven” evokes the feeling of dignity in man as he sees himself part of the greater scheme of creation.
As the favorite cynic’s story goes, the skeptical niece asks her religious, G-d fearing uncle, “Tell me, if you had to choose between truth and G-d, which would you choose?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “G-d of course.” This feeds into the stereotype that G-d, religion and truth are not necessarily synonymous.
Man’s objective is to discover the majesty within his own heart and soul. He merely has to cut away the weeds, the resistance and distortions that hold him back from reaching above his inherent limitations. The key is not to be distracted by life or to become victim to the scars of subjective attitudes. Flowers will emerge when weeds do not impede.
One of the great Rabbis once said, “Jewish tradition teaches man how small he is and how great he can become.” Do not be frightened of G-d. Stand in awe of Him. Fear weakens the spirit. Awe strengthens it. Fear is demoralizing. Awe is uplifting.
Coupled with love, awe is the basis of Judaism with which one can begin to communicate with and pray to G-d, concretizing a relationship with the soul.
Are you afraid of your soul?