And now, O Israel, what does God, your God, demand of you? Only to fear God, your God . . . (Devarim 10:12)
This is the parshah of yiras Hashem—fear of God. It is the parshah in which we are told by Moshe Rabbeinu that fear of God is all that God wants from us, in spite of the fact it is but one of 613 mitzvos. It is at once both the simplest and most complicated of mitzvos to understand and implement. One thing is for certain, as the Talmud emphatically states, the world was made for fear of God (Shabbos 31b), so let’s discuss it.
Every emotion has its place, its good times and bad times. Fear has saved many lives, and love has killed countless times. Living without fear is dangerous, and living with love can be as well. It’s just that fear makes a person feel uneasy and love makes a person feel great, which is bad and good for PR respectively.
Thanks to advances in brain science, we now know how fear physically works:
The amygdalae are two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions, the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system . . . There are cases of human patients with focal bilateral amygdala lesions . . . Such patients fail to exhibit fear-related behaviors . . . This finding reinforces the conclusion that the amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear. (Wikipedia)
This is an amazing thing. Fear is an emotional response. You would think that just seeing something dangerous would be enough to trigger fear in any person, if they are mentally capable of perceiving the scary thing. Yet, a person may be perfectly normal except for his amygdalae, seeing something that for others is normally frightful, and not be afraid.
What about people who fear too much? What is going on in them?
It should be noted that having anxiety doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your amygdala . . . The amygdala wants to keep you safe. It’s processes are specifically designed to keep you out of danger. But when it regularly overreacts, it becomes an anxiety disorder. Why, we must then ask, does the amygdala overreact in people with anxiety? In order to address this problem, we must examine various theories that have been put forward about the root cause of anxiety disorders. (How the Amygdala Affects Anxiety, CalmClinic, July 29, 2016)
The truth is, this type of fear, or anxiety disorder tends to interfere with true fear of God. Despots might enjoy when their subjects shake in their boots, but not God. Even civilized leaders want fellow members of society to fear breaking the law, otherwise society will fall apart. A Jew must fear violation of a commandment, but not only because of the punishment it may bring.
The proof of this point is the following:
Rav Chama bar Papa stated, “Every man who is endowed with chayn is without doubt a God-fearing man, as is says, ‘But the lovingkindness of God is from everlasting to everlasting to them that fear Him’ (Tehillim 103:17).” (Succah 49b)
This is very interesting. Fear of God and chayn, usually translated as “grace,” do not usually go together, or so we might think. When we think of fear of God, we might think of a contrite person, certainly not someone who might attract others, as a person with chayn usually does.
Yet, Rav Chama says that one of the best signs that a person has yiras Hashem is that he exudes chayn. If true, this would explain why Noach survived the Flood while the rest of the world did not. The Torah says he “found chayn in the eyes of God,” which would mean that it was his fear of God that saved him, not simply his nice smile.
If so, the question is why doesn’t the Torah state this. Instead of saying that it was Noach’s chayn that saved him from world disaster, mention instead his fear of God. Unless, that is the Torah’s whole point: to teach us about the true fear of God, something that we would can only learn in the context of chayn.
This would also explain Yosef, and why he is called “tzaddik.” Yosef was known for his chayn (Rashi, Bereishis 49:22), which sounds as if he was just a nice person to be around. Rav Chama is saying instead that what made Yosef different was his level of fear of God, evident by his high level of chayn. This is consistent with the following:
His master saw that God was with him, and whatever [Yosef] did God made prosper in his hand. (Bereishis 39:3)
That God was with him: The name of Heaven was frequently in his mouth. (Rashi)
At first his brothers had difficulty seeing this. When they saw his dreams come true right before their very eyes, however, and were shocked to a higher level of Divine Providence, they realized that Yosef had the most fear of God of all them. God had clearly been on his side the entire time.
When the topic of fear of God is discussed, Yosef and his brothers are rarely part of the discussion. Instead, far more recent works that delve into the issue, and far more recent examples of people who clearly feared God are showcased. It’s too bad, because the roots of the entire discussion are there, back with Yosef and his brothers.
All 12 brothers were loyal followers of God. The Torah makes a point of making this point. All of them were committed to the Torah they had been taught by their father, Ya’akov Avinu. All 12 tribes were interested only in the fulfillment of the mandate of the Jewish nation. They knew what this meant.
Today, Jewish factions are not all in agreement as to what the mandate of the Jewish people actually is. Not the sons of Ya’akov, though. They understood it perfectly from start to finish, which begs the question how they could be so wrong about Yosef. People on the same team should be able to recognize one another so that they don’t kill each other with “friendly fire.”
The answer has to with one particular detail about Yosef that separated him from the rest of his brothers. This is something that the incident with Pharaoh, of all people, revealed:
Pharaoh named Yosef, “Tzafnas Panayach” . . . (Bereishis 41:45)
Tzafnas Panayach: He who explains hidden things . . . (Rashi)
It is interesting that Pharaoh chose to focus on this aspect of Yosef’s ability. After all, Pharaoh was well-versed in the occult and had magicians who constantly revealed “hidden” things to him, well, at least hidden to him. What was unique about Yosef’s relationship with the hidden secrets of history?
Secondly, how did Pharaoh even know that Yosef had prophesied correctly? So far he had only interpreted the dream. The famine was years away at that time, and the years of plenty were still in full swing. Shouldn’t Pharaoh have waited before crowning Yosef the “revealer of hidden matters”?
The answer to that question is the following verse:
The secret of God to those who fear Him, and His covenant is to let them know [it]. (Tehillim 25:14)
The Talmud uses this verse to explain why some rabbis were able to accurately intuit information to which they otherwise had no access. They weren’t “prophets or sons of prophets.” Yet, they knew information, “secrets of God” that only prophecy could have revealed to them.
The Talmud explains: their fear of God opened a channel to Heaven that gave them access to such knowledge without having to go into a state of prophecy. It is called “Ruach HaKodesh,” which translates as “Holy Spirit,” but which is more than this. This is something that Yosef clearly had, making him unique with regard to the plans of God for history.
The only question is, didn’t the other Talmudic rabbis also fear God? Unquestionably, just as Yosef’s brother’s unquestionably feared God like their brother. Then what made the rabbis with Ruach HaKodesh different, and all the Yosefs of history for that matter? The answer to that question is the topic of next week’s Perceptions, b’ezras Hashem Yisborach.