Fearing the Unknown
Chapter 3, Mishna 21(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Azariah said: If there is no Torah [study]
there is no proper conduct; if there is no proper conduct there is no
Torah [study]. If there is no wisdom there is no fear of G-d; if there is
no fear of G-d there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge there is no
understanding; if there is no understanding there is no knowledge. If
there is no flour (sustenance) there is no Torah; if there is no Torah
there is no flour."
Last week we discussed our mishna's first statement -- "If there is no
Torah [study] there is no proper conduct." As we explained, a person who
is guided by his conscience alone will invariably fall short of the
eternal, unbending principles of morality set forth in the Torah. Our
consciences will roughly point us in the proper direction -- they *are* G-
d-given and they do hear the echoes of our eternal souls, yet even in the
best case they will fail to provide us with much of the details outlined
in the Torah for proper behavior. Further, the human conscience is as
prone to error as human beings themselves. It can easily be duped by
transient, fashionable concepts of morality and fair play -- which as we
know all too well, can at times be diametrically opposed to the real thing.
At the same time, our mishna tells us that without proper conduct one will
not accomplish in Torah study. The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah explains
that the words of the Torah will simply not dwell with a person who is not
worthy of its teachings, who lacks the basic proper behavior of the
student of Torah. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains further that if one
seems uninterested in applying the Torah's concepts to his life, much of
the Torah's beauty and relevance will be lost upon him. He will not study
in order to internalize, to apply to himself and to life situations. Much
of what the Torah has to say will to him be abstract and empty knowledge.
"If there is no wisdom there is no fear of G-d; if there is no fear of G-
d there is no wisdom:" Without wisdom, without a serious understanding of
G-d and His relationship with the world, one cannot meaningfully fear G-d.
Such a person might be "afraid" of G-d -- knowing He is bigger and
stronger than he and will punish him for his sins. But he will lack the
mature understanding of the concept of an infinite, all-powerful G-d. As
we know (and discussed recently), G-d does not attempt to rule though fear
and intimidation. We have to be mature enough to recognize G-d ourselves,
and to stand in awe of Him rather than in abject and senseless terror.
The truth is, human nature is ordinarily to be far more fearful of the
unknown -- death, the afterlife, spirits, things that go bump in the
night -- than that which we know about. We feel much more composed and
able to deal with matters if we know what a danger is -- even if an angry
Doberman Pinscher -- than to have an eerie sense that some unknown danger
When it comes to knowledge of G-d, however, the precise opposite is the
case. If we know G-d exists but relegate Him to the realm of the unknown,
He will become a vague, undefined concept. We will live life in the
physical world alone, perfectly content to ignore the existence of the
many spiritual layers of creation. Ignorance is bliss. If we know
something is watching us but don't know who or what, we are afraid. If,
however, we can look around and convince ourselves there is nothing
watching us at all (even if subconsciously we know life is not really that
simple), we are quite at ease.
The Talmud relates that R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, on his deathbed, wished
his students that they would fear G-d as much as they fear man. His
students asked: "Only that much?" He answered: "If only! Know that when a
person sins he looks around and says 'I hope no one is watching.'"
The Chovos HaLevavos (Sha'ar HaBechina 5; this is a classical ethical
work authored by R. Bachya ibn Pakuda of 11th Century Spain) writes that
it is one of the wonders of creation that man has an instinctive sense of
shame before his fellow but has no such shame before his Creator. Even
though we might believe with perfect faith that G-d is watching us at all
times, we do not have a *sense* of His presence. He is far less present to
us (except the most righteous among us) than one of His puny creations who
happens to be passing by.
R. Elazar of our mishna therefore tells us that in order to truly and
properly fear G-d we must be proactive. We must have the wisdom to
conceptualize our understanding of Him. We must study and internalize the
concept of G-d and His relationship with the world. We will certainly
never really understand G-d or His ways, but we cannot simply consign Him
to the realm of the unknown and unknowable, lest He slip out of our
At the same time, continues our mishna, without fear there is no wisdom.
We explained in Mishna 11 (www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-
11.html) that if we do not feel a sense of urgency in our studies -- that
we are anxious to understand and follow G-d's Torah and are literally
scared of falling short, what we learn will lose its significance and will
never stick. Torah study requires a great deal of self-motivation. If we
see it as an interesting excursion, it will never become a part of us and
never have the impact it must. (It's kind of reminiscent of taking off
work time to attend an optional training course. If we're not too tired,
we might actually listen. But no tests? Optional homework? Forget it!
Imagine if school had been like that! Where would we all be today?)
We now arrive at the final few statements of our mishna. In the interests
of brevity, I'll deal with each of them quickly.
"If there is no knowledge there is no understanding; if there is no
understanding there is no knowledge:" The terms used in our mishna
are "da'as" which we translated as knowledge, and "binah" or
understanding. (As Eskimo language has umpteen words for snow, Hebrew has
a large collection of words for the many different shades of wisdom. (We
have a lot interesting food words too, but they're mostly Yiddish. ;-) The
commentators offer different explanations for these two terms. Maimonides
understands da'as to mean knowledge which one has acquired, often from
other sources. Binah is the result of one's own reasoning, typically by
further defining concepts or cases, or by comparing and contrasting them
to other cases. The meaning is thus that without understanding the basic
facts, one cannot possibly discern subtleties of definition and analysis.
However, only after defining and contrasting do we truly understand the
"If there is no flour (sustenance) there is no Torah; if there is no
Torah there is no flour:" In Chapter 2 Mishna 2
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-2a.html) we discussed the
importance -- from a religious standpoint -- of earning a livelihood and
of being self-sufficient. Without sustenance, one will have neither the
financial means nor the emotional security to pursue religious endeavors.
Such a person may not be spending the many hours most of us do commuting
and working at the office, but without a means of support and the
emotional well-being (as well as ideally the self-confidence) it fosters,
such a person may learn less -- in quality if not quantity -- than his
At the same time, without Torah there is no livelihood, meaning,
according to the commentators, one's livelihood serves no purpose. If one
works, but it is primarily for the sake of Torah -- to allow him to live
his life religiously, to raise a family founded upon Jewish principles,
and not least to give the appropriate amounts to charitable causes -- his
very working will become an act of Divine service. It is a fulfillment of
G-d's wishes, if not His direct command. If, however, one works basically
for himself, it is fundamentally a mundane activity. In order to sanctify
the mundane, to transform secular acts into spiritual ones, we must live
every aspect of our lives for the Torah and for G-d.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.