Fear… or Awe!

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere/ fear (yirah) the Eternal One, your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One, your G-d, with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12). With this week’s parashah, Eikev, we are commanded to fear, or revere, or be in awe of G-d.  The Hebrew term, yirah, is a problematic one.  The two potential emotions that it suggests have very different connotations and suggest contradictory types of relationships with the Divine.

Fear:  Fear is one of our most basic, primal emotions.  We feel it from earliest childhood.  Fear is not a gentle and loving state.  It brings forth adrenaline, a fight or flight response, the need to be rescued or to escape.  We cannot be comforted by those things that frighten us.

Fear is not always bad, however.  The other side of fear is that it can keep us from engaging in dangerous behaviors.  It can inspire us to behave well, as a way to avoid punishment.  Still, the motivation of fear is self-centered and somewhat child-like.  It is couched in negativity.

Awe is a very different kind of emotion – a higher, more adult way of understanding the things around us.  Awe is about inspiration, beauty, the recognition that there are things in this world that are beyond human reach and understanding.  In some sense awe and fear are opposite sides of a coin.  Both are about the unknown, but one requires a greater depth of thought.  In order to feel awe, we have to appreciate and accept that we understand little.  Through that acceptance, we can avoid fear and embrace awe.

The High Holiday liturgy and music deal extensively with the concept of yirah, both as awe and as fear.  I am troubled by the liturgies and melodies that seek to convey and express fear.  To me, it is like those television shows that sell only sex.  Those pieces are calling out to our most primitive mind in the effort to reach out to our souls.  It’s easy.  It’s a cop out, and yet I am sure that the liturgists felt that the absolute necessity to touch people on the High Holy days makes that kind of (perhaps) cheap trick necessary.

The best example of this that I can think of is the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which includes the B’rosh Hashanah prayer.  The prayer begins by describing G-d as “nora v’ayom” – “awesome and full of dread.” The Brosh Hashanah prayer describes the great tragedies that can befall people.   In it, we consider who, in the coming year, will die by fire, hunger, thirst, flood, or devastation.  The prayer makes us ponder our mortality and by suggesting that we can “temper the severe decree” through acts of prayer, charity, and repentence, it invokes a sense of fear that we will not do enough, and that G-d will punish us.

If the text wasn’t frightening enough, the music certainly compounds the sense of dread.  Clearly the writers of this liturgy believed that this is what it took to keep the people from anarchy, murder and mayhem.  This is not a theology that most of us subscribe to and yet, I know that when I sing those words, I suddenly do believe them.  I cold chill goes through me almost every time.  The text and music have their desired affect on  me: yirah, but in the most negative sense of the word.

Do we really believe that G-d is the destructive force in the fire, the flood, the tragedy?  Isn’t G-d the Oseh Hashalom- the MAKER of piece?  Our liturgy says, “Baruch Omeir v’Oseh” – “Blessed is the One who speaks and it comes to be.”  G-d is a creative force.  G-d is in the firefighters, the relief workers, the people who run to donate blood, time, and money.  G-d is the spark in all of us that inspires us to help one another through difficult times.  Evil is the absence or denial of that spark.  Evil is in destruction, not creation.

The other side of the yirah coin is awe, that sense of wonder in the contemplation of that aspect of G-d that is beyond knowing, the ein sof. When we ponder how small humans are compared to the Earth, how small the earth is compared to the sun, how small the sun compared to the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  We are a tiny, insignificant speck.  The psalmist writes, “what are we, that you are mindful of us?”   This is awe.  Awe is in the realization that even in being so minuscule, G-d is indeed “mindful” of us.

The music of the High holy days expresses this aspect of yirah as well.  We hear it in the Mah Tovu with which we open our Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth Torah- the setting by Lewandowski.  “How good it is,” we sing with wonder as G-d’s presence fills us with awe through this glorious melody.

Yirah as awe is such a wonderful way to experience the Divine.  We feel it in a beautiful sunrise and a baby’s smile.  Awe is full of positive feelings, but it is much harder to access than fear.  This is part of what makes it such a treat when it happens.

The mystics teach us that there are many aspects to G-d’s presence.  They illustrate this in a structure that looks like a ladder or tree.  At the top is the unknowable ein sof, also called the keter, or crown.  Ein sof means without end.  This is the most mysterious aspect of the Divine.  At the bottom of the ladder is shechinah, the feminine aspect of G-d.  This is essentially G-d as we experience G-d on earth.  What a gift that is.  G-d is at the same time a completely esoteric being beyond all understanding, AND a presence that we can feel and relate to in our everyday life.

Thank G-d for that!  There is yirah, as awe or (hopefully not as) fear – those glimpses of the Ein Sof that take our breath away.  And then there is a more accessible experience of the Shechinah.

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One, your G-d demand of you? Only this: to have yirah for the Eternal your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One your G-d with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

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