There are few phrases that encapsulate the ideals and aspirations of Torah Judaism quite like the phrase, yirat shamayim. Literally translated, the phrase means “fear” or “awe of Heaven.” Yet, in recent years Jewish thinkers have made the rather convincing case that this phrase actually has little to do with what we would call either fear or awe. Rather, they argue, that yirat shamayim is best translated as willing obedience.
One of the most key pieces of evidence in this argument comes from this morning’s Torah Reading. At the climax of the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, as Avraham has his arm outstretched to perform the unthinkable act of slaughtering his son, an angel comes to him and and says:
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
Don’t touch a hair on that child’s head. For now that you have not withheld him from Me, I know you are a yarei Hashem.
Despite Kierkegaard’s famous treatise on the subject, there is nothing in the text of this story that even hints of the emotions of fear or trembling as we would know it. And it’s not like we don’t have such emotions expressed in the Torah. Later on in Sefer Bereishit, when Yaakov wakes up with a start after dreaming of celestial beings going up and down a ladder to the Heavens, we read:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
Yaakov woke up with a start and said “wow, God his here in this place and I had no idea.”
He was scared and he said “how awesome is this place, this must be a God’s house and the gateway to Heaven”
Here, though, in our story, Avraham has no such experience. This story, the one associated with yirat shamayim, is about obedience - ultimate obedience - not about fear.
And, if yirat shamayim is thus not what we might associated with fear and fright, we might be tempted to look over our shoulder at our brothers and sisters who refer to themselves Chareidim - which literally translates as “tremblers - or Quakers - before God” - and argue that they might be mistaken in their understanding of Judaism’s primary religious experience. Ours in not a God that asks us to serve Him out of trepidation and terror, we might contend. But a God who wants obedience, perhaps from love, contemplation, and joy.
And yet there can be no mistaking that today is a day for Chareidim, in the truest sense of the word. Today, a sense of awe and fear and trembling is unquestionably central to the experience which the Torah demands. After all, we refer to these days as Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe - not Yamim Shel Yirat Hashem. In the tefillah I will recite in just a few minutes, the chazan begins by referring to himself as נרעש ונפחד מפחד יושב תהילות ישראל, flustered and afraid because of fear of the One who sits on high.
The centerpiece of the Chazan’s repetition of Musaf, u-Netaneh Tokef, expresses the same theme:
וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָׁמַע וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן וְיֹאמְרוּ הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין…
Let us give voice to the holiness of the day, for it is awe-inspiring and terrifying…
And a powerful shofar will be blown, and a thin small voice will be heard, and the angels will be alarmed and dread and fear will take hold of them and they will proclaim: The Day of Judgement has arrived!
For me, as I imagine for many of you, entering into this emotional state does not come easily.
In his commentary on the machzor published in 2011, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, the famed Torah scholar and psychologist, wondered aloud whether democracy may have diminished our sense of yirat shamayim. Chazal, after all, constantly use the parable of an Earthly king to help us understand how ought to relate to the King of Kings. If we wouldn’t say such or do such in front of an human king, certainly we shouldn’t say such or do such in front of the King of Kings. If we’d tremble and cower in front of an Earthly ruler, then how much more must we tremble and cower before our Ruler in Heaven.
In a democracy, Twersky noted, such experiences are largely absent. Our officials are elected, their terms are limited, their power curtailed. We, who elect them, are free to criticize them and they are openly critical of each other.
And if Dr. Twerski was concerned about a lack of awe and reverence for our political leadership - on both sides of the isle - in 2011... what would he say today? Today it seems that not only can we criticize our most powerful elected leaders, we can even infiltrate their highest ranks, subvert their intended agenda, and then write about it in The New York Times.
And it’s not just about politics. Awe and reverence, deference to authority, fear and trembling in a healthy sense, are the rarest of commodities in any sector of contemporary western society. Fear is for the weak. Awe is for the ignorant. Reverence is reserved for the naive.
And it’s not just in America. Though we continue to face existential threats in our Homeland, today’s Israelis - thankfully - no longer live in a state of fear. Instead they live in what we might call a world of Fauda; a world in which our enemies may hit hard, but we hit harder. And from the office of the Prime Minister to that of the President, and from the floor of the Knesset to - לצערי הרב -the institution of Chief Rabbi, feelings of awe and reverence are all but absent from the contemporary Israeli experience. Indeed, if ever you wanted to experience the lack of fear and deference pervasive in Israeli society today, you simply have to rent a car and spend some time on the road. Every Israeli is a commando behind the wheel.
Closer to home, though, we are often quick to point out a lack of reverence and deference in our children. And yet - if we are honest with ourselves - what can we truly expect of them, when such feelings are often absent in our experiences as well? From whom are they to learn what it looks like to tremble? Where are their models for reverence, deference, and awe?
Today is a day to answer those critical questions. Today is a day to shift our focus from all the incredible progress we’ve made to all the things we have yet to achieve. Today we turn our attention away from the comfort of that which we can predict and that which we can control, to the discomfort and disquiet of the incontrolable and the unknown.
Two weeks ago we read of HKB”H’s insistence that we serve Him out of joy: תחת אשר לא עבדת את יהוה אלהיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל . There is no question in my mind that today, this command is more critical than ever. It is the joy of Torah, its beauty and its enduring truths that will connect us and our children to it more so than fear and trepidation.
Yet, at times, authentic experience of our mesorah requires that we tap into the latter as well. Hard as it is in today’s world, there are times in which we must find a way to experience deference, authority, and awe. Hard as it is in today’s world, there are times in which we must tap into our inner Chareidi. We must do it for ourselves, and we must do it for our children. Today, a day which is ayom vi-nora, is precisely such a time.
In the merit of the pachad we experience today, may we be blessed with a year of yirat shamayim for ourselves and for our children מתוך אהבה שמחה וטוב לבב.