A little while ago in our service, we read a translation of one of the traditional prayers of Yom Kippur. You may have noticed a mark on the translation on page 262, a little circle, that indicates that the translation is not literal.
Here is a little of what the Hebrew on that page means more literally:
“Place Your fear, Adonai our God, upon all of Your works, and Your dread upon all that You have created. Let all Your handiwork fear You, and let them bow down before You…”
Fear of God. Even, the dread of God. This is not an image that most of us find very comforting or desirable on Yom Kippur. I have to admit, I flinch a bit whenever I see the expression, “Fear of God,” but it is a phrase that appears often in Jewish prayer, especially during the High Holy Days. Of all things, why would a loving, nurturing God want me to be afraid? What does it even mean to fear God?
The phrase, I believe, is particularly confounding to us because of all the negative associations with have the with emotion of fear. Psychology teaches us that fear is the painful, cringing instinct at the root of neurosis. It is our irrational fears that keep us from experiencing life to the fullest. Fear is the enemy that makes some people quick to overreact to perceived slights, quick to become defensive, quick to feeling guilty, quick to run away from a challenge, quick to assume the worst about others, quick to fall back into bad habits, or quick to deny reality.
So, we have to ask: Is that what God wants? Does God really want us to do God’s will because we are afraid? Does God want to condition us to avoid impulsively some dreadful punishment that God might otherwise inflict upon us?
Part of our problem in understanding, “the fear of God,” I believe, is that we tend to focus on just one kind of fear when we see that phrase. “Fear,” both in Hebrew and in English, can refer to a wide range of experiences.
When a person stands on the edge of the immensity of the Grand Canyon, or looks out over the vastness of the ocean, it is hard not to think about how small and fragile we really are. We realize that we could easily be swallowed up and consumed by that immenseness, both figuratively and literally. That feeling may well be described as fear. It is that slightly disorienting awareness that there are things in the universe that are not only beyond our scope and scale, they are beyond our understanding. That sort of “fear” is what we are talking about when we use the phrase “fear of God.” It’s not about cowering or cringing. It is about the experience of awe and reverence.
And here is how it applies to Yom Kippur: When you find yourself thinking about doing something that you know is wrong, that trembling feeling in your gut is also a kind of fear. Maybe we fear we will damage a valued relationship. Maybe we fear our actions will turn us into the kind of person we don’t want to be. Maybe we just fear getting caught. Maybe it is a little of each of these. It is the quaking, shuddering, skin crawling dread that you feel when you know you are in danger of doing something that might, in the end, consume you. That is also the fear we mean when we talk about “the fear of God.”
This fear/dread/reverence/awe occurs in the moment that we recognize ourselves to be in the presence of a great power – not necessarily a power that threatens our bodies, but one that overwhelms our soul. It is not like the fear of an abusive parent’s striking you across the face. It is more like the fear of seeing a beloved parent’s look of disappointment in your actions. It is the the uncomfortable, unnerving and uncommon feeling you get when you realize that there is something more important than you.
This is a kind of fear that we actually can feel good about having. Nobody wants to be the child who can feel no regret in the disappointment of his or her parents. Certainly, no parents want their children to have an ethical and emotional blindness that makes them insensitive to chastisement. We understand that the ability to be aware of the feeling of fearful awe is at the foundation of morality and of having a conscience. It is the primitive, emotional response that makes “right” and “wrong” not just intellectual ideas, but emotion-laden realities that we feel in our kishkes.
It is important to know that this quaking, awesome, reverent fear, is not the only emotion that Jewish tradition wants us to feel about God. Not just on Yom Kippur, but on every day of the year, we recite the passage from Deuteronomy that asks us to “love Adonai our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.” In Jewish tradition, the “love of God” is usually mentioned in parallel with the “fear of God” as the balancing quality for a complete relationship. Just as children should regard their parents both with love and respect, so it is with a person’s relationship with God.
During most of the year, we recite prayers that talk about God’s eternal love for us and about our love for God. Some of those prayers are present in the liturgy for the High Holy Days, but the balance shifts at this time of year toward the side of “fearing God” rather than “loving God.” The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are known in Hebrew as Yamim HaNora’im, the “Days of Fearful Awe.” It is during this time of year that we do not talk so much about God as companion and lover. The High Holy Days’ liturgy is filled instead with images of God as ruler, master and judge.
Why does the tradition emphasize these fearful images of God so much at this time of year? To use a metaphor, it is because we are now in “finals week” of the Jewish spiritual calendar and the big exam is less than twenty-four hours away. Now is the time when we most want to hear the stern voice of God as the clock ticks down to the deadline for atonement. Now is not the time for hearing the loving voice that says that we can always get an extension. This is the time of year when we most want to use images of God that motivate us to action. There are other times of year to imagine God as loving partner; this is the time to imagine God as ruler and judge.
Unfortunately, if you are only in the synagogue during these Days of Fearful Awe, you only hear the stern voice. By way of comparison, it is as if you were to hear only your spouse’s criticism of you and never hear his or her words of love and devotion. That’s not good in a marriage and it’s not great for a relationship with God. But it would not be good, either, to hear only the sweet words and never hear the “tough love” that makes us squirm a bit.
Fear, you see, is not always a bad thing to feel. From a religious point of view, the shuddering fear of awe motivates us to make our best choices in life and to keep ourselves far from temptations that lead us to bad choices. From a scientific perspective, too, fear is not some kind of evolutionary mistake in the way our brains are constructed – far from it. Fear is part of the necessary mechanism for survival.
Fear is the thing that triggers a “fight or flight” response when an animal is confronted by a predator or a life threatening situation. Fear can save us by filling our bodies with the hormones we need to run away as fast as we can, or to defend ourselves with all of our might. Fear is a good thing … if it is triggered by a real threat.
The problem is that many of the things that scare us are not worth the endorphin rush we get when we are frightened. Our brains are wired to experience fear exactly the same way whether the fear is real or imagined.
And the human mind has a remarkable capacity to imagine all sorts of things … and to fear them. Imagination is the ability that allows us to design and build cities, to transform a desert into a vineyard, and to create art. It is one of our most unique traits as a species, one of our greatest tool for achievement, but it can also be a great obstacle.
Think about how easily we turn our imaginings into fear. Think about the way a movie can scare you out of your wits. Think about the way you can lie awake in bed at night worrying about worst-case scenarios that exist only in your mind. Think, also, of how easily our minds fall prey to fear-based prejudices when we believe that we are threatened by people who are different from us, even if we have never experienced any harm from them outside of our imagination. If a person imagines a threat, and becomes preoccupied with the thought of that threat, he or she can be driven to distraction and, ironically, suffer real harm from nothing more than his or her own fear.
Knowing this, explains a lot about the fearful times in which we live. We turn on the television and hear news about ISIS’s beheadings, war in the Middle East, anti-semitism in Europe, and even local news broadcasts driven by the dubious principle, “if it bleeds, it leads.” The advertising industry has long tried to make us afraid of everything from body odor to wearing last year’s fashions.
It has become common for politicians and cable news channels to scare us with stories of about how their opponents will raise our taxes, cut our pensions, allow the borders to be overrun by foreigners, or allow the country to be taken over by rapacious corporations. Our politics have become like the set of a cheap horror film with everyone terrified of what lies behind the next closed door. It would almost be comical, if the consequences weren’t so hurtful for our society.
We have to know that this kind of constant fear is really very bad for us. A person who is constantly frightened by imagined dangers can get stressed out. The constant flood of “fight or flight” hormones poisons our bodies with the chemicals that nature meant to be used only in emergencies. We make ourselves sick and we make bad choices motivated by our least generous, least kind, and most fearful thoughts. That only leads to more fear, more stress, and greater unhappiness.
The great American orthodox rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik, had a good way of explaining how the fear of God, paradoxically, is the antidote to living our modern life of fear. He was once asked by a Jewish psychologist why Jewish tradition talked so much about fearing God, considering how much harm irrational fears can cause. In response, Soloveitchik said, “I would rather have one big fear than a thousand little ones.”
Soloveitchik understood the problem of fear, and he expressed it in the language of God-talk, but it makes sense no matter what language you use. We, as human beings, can make conscious choices about what we shall fear. Shall we live in dread of not impressing our peers with our wealth, or shall we fear not living up to our values? Shall we fear that the government or corporations will come take away our liberties, or shall we fear that we have not done enough to create a just and peaceful world? Shall we fear every perceived slight or blow to our ego, or shall we fear that we have not treated others with dignity and kindness?
Fearing God is a metaphor for setting our priorities in life so that we direct our energies toward what is best within us, not toward our angriest, neediest and most selfish selves. Fearing God does not mean cowering to defend ourselves from divine blows. The fear of God means taking possession of our fears, using the energy to heighten our self-awareness of the choices we make in life and try to do better.
And here is how another rabbi expressed this thought: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav famously taught, “כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל,” “All the world, all of it, is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of it all is not to fear at all.” Nachman wants to remind us that life is filled with distractions and diversions that can lead us dangerously astray, but we should not fear these things at all. Rather, we should know that there is a path – a bridge, as it were – that can lead us where we are intended to go. Do not fear life’s turmoil, he says, just keep your eyes on the prize and know the path you are on.
That is what we do when we stay close to our values and our highest goals in life. That is what we do when we let go of some of our fears and anxieties and allow our attention to stay focussed on the one big thing that we should stay focused upon – doing what is right, making our world a better place, upholding our values, living with reverence and awe for for that which is beyond.
Is what I am suggesting easy? Not at all. Some find that prayer helps, meditation can help, just taking a little time each day to reflect calmly on the path ahead can help, too. It takes patience to quiet our frantic minds enough to even notice our fears and how they affect our behavior. It takes discipline to make changes in the way we respond to our fears. It requires us to change some of our priorities so we have time to reflect. It also takes a lot of self-forgiveness for the times when we don’t get it right. Even then, we can spend an entire lifetime working to master our fears and still fall short.
However, the effort we expend toward transforming our fears is richly rewarded. The reward is our own happiness (and who doesn’t want to be happier?). By turning away from the thousand fears that send us flying and fighting in a million directions, we give ourselves the opportunity to live the lives that we actually want, not the lives that we are scared into.
I don’t regret that our prayerbook does not translate literally the blessing that asks us to “fear of God.” It would rub me the wrong way to read that on Yom Kippur, or on any day. But I also do not regret that the traditional Hebrew words of the blessing are still there. They are a gentle reminder on Yom Kippur that the trembling, disorienting feeling that we might call fear is something that helps us become the people we want to be. When channeled and directed, it is a force that helps us make wiser choices.
To me, fearing God means taking control of fear. It means distinguishing threats that are real from those that are imagined. It means a release from the pressure always to be better than, richer than, more popular than, or more powerful than somebody else. Most of all, it means noticing that we are not the center of the universe. It reminds us that, in turning our fears over to a power greater than ourselves, we choose our own happiness.
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.