"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired
with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is
acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (5) awe, (6) fear, (7) modesty, (8)
The qualities of this week indicate somewhat of the dual nature of our
relationship with Torah study -- a curious mixture of both exhilaration and
fear. We will first define the two types of fear listed, and we'll then
discuss the concurrent obligation of fear and joy.
The second quality above, fear ("yirah"), is the more generic term for
fear. It is typically used for the fear one has of an immediate threat. The
first quality, awe ("aimah"), is typically translated as awe or dread. It
implies a low-grade or long-term fear -- of something not as visible or
impending. Yirah implies the fear or fright one feels in the presence of
danger -- or when going into that interview for your dream job. Aimah is
the dull but gnawing sense of dread or foreboding one has for a distant yet
lurking danger, such as one has when marching into war or, tragically, the
citizens of the State of Israel often experience today.
When studying Torah one likewise experiences this same combination of fear
and awe. The Machzor Vitri (a commentary on the Siddur (prayerbook)
authored by Rabbeinu Simcha of 11th-12th century France) explains that one
feels a more direct fear for his Torah teacher in whose presence he sits,
and a more general sense of awe realizing he is ultimately in G-d's
presence -- and that it is the Torah of G-d he must not misunderstand. We
may also explain that the sense of awe stems from the realization we are
attempting to fathom G-d's infinite wisdom, while the fear is for the more
immediate -- that we may not understand what we study or that we allow the
Torah's lessons to be neglected and forgotten.
Yet at the same time, our mishna tells us to study with joy -- as the
commentator Rashi points out that the Divine Presence dwells only amidst
joy (Talmud Shabbos 30b). The message is thus that both emotions must exist
simultaneously. On the one hand, Torah study is exhilarating and uplifting.
We should be excited about seeing new truths and making sense out of life.
(We should look forward to our weekly lessons from Torah.org!) ;-) On the
other hand, we should be scared -- and scared stiff: scared of knowing
truths we must live up to, scared of going through life not knowing, and
scared of making a mistake. We must not go too fast, yet we will surely be
held accountable for going too slow. It is not easy to meet up with G-d. It
is the experience and inspiration of a lifetime -- and it is very, very scary.
My teacher, R. Yochanan Zweig (http://rabbizweig.com/ &
http://www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) pointed out that the Torah seems
to present two strikingly different accounts of the Revelation at Sinai. In
Exodus 19-20, the Revelation is described in all its force and fury. G-d
reveals Himself in thunder, lightning and billowing smoke. Mount Sinai
quakes, ready to be torn asunder. The world stands still, and Israel,
trembling, backs away. They beg Moses to intermediate (20:16). They will
obey (they would be terrified not to), but obey from a distance, for "who
is there of flesh who may hear the voice of the Living G-d... and live?"
However, Exodus 24 describes the same episode, but in an utterly different
light. (Bible critics, those self-appointed judges of G-d's truth, just
love finding such discrepancies, instantly concluding that multiple authors
were busy at work. Let's however understand things just a little deeper.)
Here the nation willingly accepts G-d's Torah ("Whatever G-d has spoken we
will do and we will hear" (v. 7)). The elders experience a glorious vision
of G-d, in fact becoming too free and uninhibited in their ecstasy. ("And
they beheld G-d, and they ate and drank" (v. 11).) In addition, the lads of
Israel -- rather than the elders -- are sent forward to offer sacrifices to
G-d. The feeling is one of love and intimacy, of some glorious and
heartwarming coming together of loving child and all-merciful Father.
R. Zweig explained that both episodes occurred in full -- and they occurred
at the exact same time. A single experience of such magnitude can be so
laden with meaning and emotion that it can literally mean two things all at
once. Imagine a wedding, the bride and groom marching down the aisle. The
bride may be thinking "Oh, this is so wonderful and romantic!" The groom
may be thinking: "Oh my gosh! What am I getting myself into?" (Vice versa
is also possible, of course.) These feelings are not contradictory. Both
feelings may -- and probably should -- be running through each of the
partners as he or she is ushered into this new stage of life. On the one
hand, as husband and wife, they are coming together in intimate and loving
bond. On the other, they are undertaking new emotional (as well as
financial) responsibilities they have never before known. Each is giving
over a part of his very essence to another human being. They no longer live
for themselves; they have lost their independence. And in all the joy and
excitement, life will never be the same.
This was as well the experience Israel underwent at Sinai. There was terror
and quaking fear. The Talmud tells us that G-d lifted Mount Sinai above the
nation's heads and delivered the ultimatum: "Accept the Torah or here will
be your graves" (Shabbos 88a). Israel was cowed into submission. There
could be no life, no existence without the acceptance of the Torah. It was
not a "choice" in the ordinary sense. One cannot see G-d and then "decide"
if to accept His authority or not. Israel heard "I am the L-rd your G-d"
with their own quivering ears. They had to accept their Master. Good, bad,
personal preference: none of that made the slightest difference before the
awesome and devastating reality of G-d Himself.
But at the very same time, there was love and exhilarating excitement. The
people *loved* the experience -- terrified as they were -- and wanted
nothing more than a relationship with their G-d. Israel had to be warned
and warned again not to break loose, to charge up the fiery mountain in
uncontrollable urge to get close to their Creator (see Exodus 19:21-4). It
was an experience greater than life itself -- the experience the human soul
-- though we don't always realize it -- craves above all else. Israel
wanted to get close to its G-d, but it was terrified all the same.
This was the experience we as a nation felt at Mount Sinai, and in a way we
sense the echo of this whenever we study the Torah. We feel good about
accomplishing in Torah study. We feel we are growing and fulfilling our
purpose; our souls are happy and content. Yet it comes with fear, and a
humbling, even crushing, sense of new-found obligation. One cannot study
the Torah and remain the same person; he cannot be impartial. He either
admits to the truths he has now acquired and lives up to them, or he must
ignore and repress, shunning that which he knows deep down he cannot deny.
We thus study with real fear and trepidation -- but at the same time with
the sense that there is truly nothing else in life we would rather have.