The sort of fear most of us typically experience is termed “the fear of punishment” in classical Jewish sources. We’d liken it to the natural sort of fear or anxiety we’d have about some unexpected harmful consequences of our actions. It’s something we all experience when we worry about a decision or a choice we made, for example, which might prove to be detrimental.
That sort of anxiety and fear, Ramchal offers, “is certainly very easy to come to, because everybody has an instinct for self-preservation and is concerned for his well-being, and because there’s nothing that’s more likely to keep you away from doing something harmful to yourself than the fear of its (detrimental) consequences”. But “that sort of fear is only fitting for illiterates” and the like, Ramchal says — not for anyone in search of spiritual excellence.
That’s because it’s a primitive sort of fear, in fact, that’s rooted in illusions of personal control, in misconceptions about the nature of reality, and in a lack of faith in G-d’s place in the universe and in His very real role in the give-and-take of each and every moment.
True and spiritually consequential “fear of punishment” comes down to being “afraid to transgress G-d’s dictates because of the punishments … that transgressors will have to suffer”. That’s to say that given that there are many specific things that G-d notified us that we’d need to do in order to draw close to Him, it would do us well to experience a certain discomfort about our standing in G-d’s eyes if we don’t heed His advice.
Ramchal’s clear implication (since he contrasts this with the easier form of fear above, and because it’s offered so late in the course of the conversation as we pointed out earlier on), is that it’s actually quite difficult to arrive at this sort of fear.
That’s undoubtedly due to the fact that it calls for a deep and stunning realization of G-d’s presence in one’s own life, and in a heart-felt willingness to set one’s own will aside when it collides with G-d’s. For as every sensitive soul knows, the pumping human heart always wants to assert itself in the face of this and that — even G-d’s own will.
So, we will need to see what Ramchal offers in light of that.