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Fear and Awe

  • Fear and Awe

    Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
D'var Torah By: 

FOCAL POINT

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: "Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Eternal swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And it is indeed the Eternal who will go before you. [God] will be with you; [God] will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!" (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)

D'VAR TORAH

Toward the end of the Torah we are witness to a key transition in the life of our people as Moses passes down the mantle of leadership to Joshua. When Moses speaks to Joshua, he tells him, "[God] will be with you; [God] will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!" (Deuteronomy 31:8).

As Moses prepares to die and Joshua prepares to accept his new role, they are both aware of the awesome responsibility that comes with leadership and of the vulnerability, the separateness, of being in that position. Moses reassures Joshua that he is up to the task, that he need not fear-he is not alone, because God is with him.

Vayeilech also occurs at a pivotal moment in the Jewish year. This parashah is usually read on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; during the years that it is a double portion with Parashat Nitzavim, it is read on the Shabbat prior to Rosh HaShanah.

This period of time in the Jewish year is known as the Yamim Noraim, commonly translated as "the Days of Awe." But the root of the Hebrew word nora, (yod-reish-alef) also has the connotation of "fear." So we might view this period of time as both days of awe and days of fear.

In a modern English-Hebrew dictionary we can find five different Hebrew words for "fear." Upon close examination, however, we see that there are subtle nuances in translation that help us to understand what the words really signify. For instance, the word pachad is best translated as "terror" or "trembling." It is best utilized when associated with forceful events, wrath, or rage. On the other hand, yira, the word Moses uses in addressing Joshua, is most closely associated with theophany. Thus, in these instances "fear" can also be understood as "awe," because they represent different sides of the same experience. Lo tira (Deuteronomy 31:8) or al tir'u (Deuteronomy 31:6) is linked with the power of God and the awesome experience of the Divine.

As human beings we are creatures of awe and wonder. At the same time, we are fearful of what we experience as wondrous, but cannot understand. The edge between fear and awe is razor thin; fear and awe are two sides of the same balance beam. We are at once fearful, because of the extent of our vulnerability, and at the same time awed at the mysterious experience of the holy that fills our world. As the Torah describes Jacob upon awakening from his dream: Vayira vayomar, "Mah nora hamakom hazeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim v'zeh shaar hashamayim," "Shaken, he said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven'" (Genesis 28:17). Jacob's theophany might also be translated: "He feared/was awestruck [by the power of his experience] and said, 'What an awesome/fearful God this is. This is none other than the dwelling place of God, and this is the gateway to understanding that which is in the heavens.'"

Moses understands the power of standing in God's presence and being God's messenger, and he reminds Joshua of both polarities of the word yira. Even as Moses accepts that he must relinquish his authority, he teaches Joshua something of the meaning of being a leader: that one must exercise great care not to misuse one's power and authority. For you can use that power to cause fear in others in order to control them, or you can be mindful of that responsibility and not allow it to be distorted. So Moses is telling Joshua not to fear his responsibilities, but also to be mindful of the awesomeness of God-this is the meaning of "God will be with you."

As we prepare to usher in the New Year 5766, we must also be aware that we stand on the border of a Promised Land that links our past with our future. We know that as we enter the year ahead, parts of us must be left behind and we will encounter elements of our lives that are tinged with both awe and fear. And we can imagine, as the new year approaches, it is as if Moses speaks to each one of us personally, saying, "It is you who shall go with this people [our families, our communities] into the land that the Eternal swore to their fathers [our ancestors]. . . . And it is indeed the Eternal who will go before you. [God] will be with you; [God] will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!"

We have the choice to use the powers and authorities that we are given as instruments of awe or weapons of fear. We have the opportunity, as we look toward the coming year, to know that in our moments of achievement and in our moments of vulnerability, our lives are filled with meaning and awe and that we need not be afraid, for God is with us.

BY THE WAY

  • Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew. It is "the beginning and gateway of faith, the first precept of all, and upon it the whole world is established." In Judaism, yirat hashem, the awe of God, or yirat shamayim, the "awe of heaven," is almost equivalent to the word "religion." In Biblical language the religious man is called not "believer," as he is for example in Islam, but yare hashem. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955], p. 77)
  • Rav Y'hudah said, "The Holy One, blessed be God, created God's world only that humans should fear/revere God, for it is said, and God hath done it, that humans should fear/be in awe before God" (Ecclesiastes 3:14 ). (BabylonianTalmud, Shabbat 31b)
  • Where there is no wisdom, there is no awe.
    Where there is no awe, there is no wisdom. (Pirkei Avot 3:21 )
  • I feared in my joy, I rejoiced in my fear, and my love prevailed over all. (Seder Eliyahu Rabba, chapter 3)

YOUR GUIDE

  1. Heschel suggests that awe is at the root of faith. Does the sense of yirat HaShem, "fear of God," or yirat hashamayim, "fear of the heavens," inspire faith for you?
  2. In advising Joshua on how to become an effective leader, Moses draws connections between faith, awe, and relinquishing control to God in order to abandon fear. Similarly, Pirkei Avot 3:21 links the concepts of wisdom and awe. How do you view the connection between faith and fear? What about the connection between wisdom and awe?
  3. There is an inherent tension between what there seems to be to fear and what there really is to fear. Can one also say the same about what there is to be in awe of?

Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel, West Lafayette, Indiana.

10/08/2005
Reference Materials: 

Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1–30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,546-1,554; Revised Edition, pp. 1,386?1,394;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,235–1,250