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) joy…
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 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?” (Deuteronomy 5:23).
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 G-d! 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.
Text Copyright © 2015 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.