6 Tishrei 5783

What does it mean “ To Fear God”?

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The context of this parashah, according to our sages, is that it takes place on the last day of Moshe’s life on this physical plane. He is aware that he is going to die that very day, and he’s speaking to those around him from the depths of his being. If you and I were in this same position, what would we talk about? Would we discuss who will take over our business? Would we talk about our best clothes, our jewelry, or bank accounts ? Would we talk about the latest tv series we’re watching? the bill we haven’t paid yet? our achievements? our assets? It would seem that everything around us would be meaningless, and what we would really like to do would be to gather (hakhel – Devarim 31:12) our loved ones to relay our last words that would resonate in their memory, that we will still be present with them every day and not forgotten in the grave, in she’ol.

Moses gathered all the people around him, the elders, the cohanim, the Levites, the people, and focused on giving his final speech, about Yirat Hashem, the fear of God. Moses is trying to instill in the people of Israel a message whose essential element would nourish us daily with life. Earlier, in Devarim 10:12, he asked: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God…” And here in Devarim 31:12 – 13 he says: “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully follow all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know this Torah, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess”.

If we analyze this verse, it seems that religious people strive very hard to comply. But why do we want to comply? I loved a reading from Rabbi Noah Weinberg who says: “Serving GOD out of fear is inappropriate, because it implies that we do not understand the meaning and benefit of acting on behalf of GOD’s will. It makes us mercenaries, whose focus is more on getting paid than doing the right thing.” Analyzing myself, I have discovered that on more than one occasion I have been a “mercenary” instead of a “son”, who seeks to do the right thing, not out of fear of God, but to avoid consequences; so, my motivation and my intention has not been correct. Having the wrong motivation is equivalent to living with guilt, fear, frustration, bitterness of heart, sadness, anxiety, and depression. Why? Because we wake up daily saying to ourselves: “I cannot comply”; “I am incapable”; “I am useless”; “No matter how hard I try, I don’t change”; “I’m a hypocrite”; “I am wasting my time”; “I am deceiving myself”; “Not even God loves me”; “The crooked tree cannot  be straightened”, among the many voices, internal and external. 

Returning to verse 12 and 13, it teaches us that the correct process is the one taught by Moses: Unity + Listen + Learn + Fear is the key to keeping and because of keeping, in the end there will be fulfillment of the commandments. Any fulfillment that does not follow this process will be empty, it will be meaningless, and it can only feed the ego and the arrogance of the person who fulfills it.

The very key in the process is unity, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of origin or gender. In unity, I realize that I am not the center of the universe, I am at the same level as the others, I am humble enough to learn. Without unity, I cannot practice the commandments or chesed (kindness) to others. On the other hand, imagine the chaos in a society that has different laws and that everyone does what they think is best; that is without unity. That would be like the chaos that existed in the times of the Judges of Israel! For this reason, unity is not only living physically within the same space, but it also implies living under the same rules, accepting them, practicing them, and having the same way of thinking and values. We also come together for a purpose, and in this case, it is to listen.

Listening implies respect, reverence, humility because I must stop my mouth and adopt a passive position to let another speak either because he is wiser or because it is necessary for me to remain silent to give my mind space to learn. This implies maturity to understand that I was born a “know-it-all”, and such a sensitivity that allows these words to enter from my ears to my brain, be kept inside my soul.

Learning requires a student and a teacher, without which the learning process is not complete.  Pirke Avot 1:1 says “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.” The process of learning implies active responsibility because the teacher who teaches but does not practice what he teaches becomes a source of contempt both for the Torah and God. He is like the one about whom the Torah says puts obstacles in the path of the blind. Also, the student who does not aspire to reproduce himself in others is evil, because by knowing what is good, but not teaching it, he acts selfishly. This process of becoming a teacher leads to the fear of Heaven, because by teaching, we become aware of our role in this world. Our psyche was designed to avoid dissociation of the personality; that is, we were designed to live in harmony, in integrity between our words and actions thus creating this “fence” for the Torah. That is why when there is no harmony within us, there is chaos. A fence is a protection so that what is inside does not come out.

Fear, in Hebrew, Yirat, also has a meaning that implies “to see”. Seeing is being aware that we are seen at every moment which allows us to create fences, as Pirke Avot 2:1 says, “Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know that above you there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” There is a story from the Chafetz Chaim that indicates that on a certain occasion they were in a cart with another man and passed by a place where there was fruit that was pleasing to the eye and appetizing. As a consequence of the temptation, the man tells the Chafetz Chaimthat he would go down to pick fruit from a field that did not belong to them and asked him to let him know if someone was watching them, obviously to avoid be discovered and found guilty. When the man got down to cut the fruit, the Chafetz Chaim began to shout: “He’s watching! He’s watching!” …. This made the man get back on the cart without taking the fruit. Seeing the field, he noticed that there was no one around them, and recriminating the Chafetz Chaim said: “You lied to me! No one is watching!” With this, the Chafetz Chaimreplied: “Of course there is! God is always watching us; He sees everything.”

Rabbi Ami Silver teaches this definition: “Fear is that awareness that I have no control over myself or the environment around me, that I am at the mercy of an unknown force, because I have lost a sense of security or that I am in control of a situation; it is that external force that produces this feeling of fear. When we recognize that we are not in control, Yirat Hashem, the Fear of God comes to us, that profound knowledge that there is a Force, a Creator, a God who controls all realities, Who sustains the cosmos and each of our lives are in His hands. This awareness sets apart our relationship with our neighbor in respect to the relationship with the Eternal since it establishes a bond based on who we are and who God is. This experience that all the great names in the Tanach have gone through, is to arrive at this recognition. We saw it in Abraham when he left Ur to go into the unknown; in Isaac when he was almost sacrificed, in Yaakov when he had to face his fears with the angel, in Moses in the bush, when it was announced that he would have to face an Empire, in the midwives in Egypt when they refused to murder the Hebrew babies.

We see this awareness reflected in this portion; first in verse 31:3 “The Lord your God will Himself cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the LORD said.” It doesn’t seem to say anything profound, but when we dig a little deeper – who would go first? On the human level, Joshua, but really to Israel, Moses is saying, “It will not be your leaders, it will not be your army, nor the people, it will be the Bore Olam, your God; He will go before you.” It will not be your military capacity, not even Israel would destroy their enemies, they would only banish them, which implies that the people would flee from these places and Israel would replace them on earth. The teaching is that I am not in military control, I am not in control of the situation over other people, I depend on the Bore Olam, He is in control.

Second, verses 31:10 -11 are related to the shemitah, the seventh year when the land would have its rest; it would not be the same as just sitting around; it tells them that they would gather and the entire Torah would be read to all of Israel, within their hearing. In that year, they would not have financial control of themselves; they had to depend upon the food that the Eternal would provide with the confidence that He would sustain them. That is to say, “I’m not in control of my livelihood, my finances, my workforce”. When I come to this awareness, I am ready to “listen in my ear”. Has anyone ever whispered in your ear? It’s very strange, but it requires our concentration like when they send you a private message.

Third, on another occasion the Hakhel (the gathering) occurred, and this was on Mount Sinai, when the Eternal manifested himself in the form of fire, thunder, signs, and wonders. Today they were also gathered, and God appeared (31:15) in the form of a Cloud in their midst. Being in the presence of God produces a physical paralysis because of how astonished we are to be before Him; in other words, I do not have control over my body, over the elements that support my body, or of my soul. Tehillim 76:7 says: “It is You alone who are to be feared. Who can stand before You when You are angry?” Tehillim 24:3 says, “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place?” Malachi 3:2 says, “But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears?” When this fear exists in our body and we see the vulnerability of our human nature, there is space for the 10 words, and this should be the basis of listening and practicing them. It is when we recognize that He really is in control over everything, that a pact (a relationship) is formed with each of us.

Fourth, Moses called the people together (31:28) indicating that he knew that they would lose their fear of Heaven, and so his last speech would be expressed in the form of a song which we will read in Haazinu.

Connecting the dots, I conclude with Isaiah 33:6 “He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.” When we fear, we are safe. I remember that on a certain occasion when I was a young man, my father sent me to the bank to exchange a fairly large amount of money. When I left the bank until I handed over that money, I did not hesitate, or stop, or allow myself to be distracted, or spend it, or do silly things while I had my father’s money. Why? Because there was fear in me – of deceiving my father, of losing the money, of doing the wrong thing. While I prudently guarded what was not mine, I complied. When we lose the awareness of the Fear of Heaven, we will not guard, and we will not appreciate. What Moses said in verse 29 will happen “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you.” Our Haftarah in Malachi 2:5-6 says: “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin…”

God wants this year 5783 to be full of life and peace, but he has also given us the gift of fear and the ability to choose, to show deep reverence. Do you want to be inscribed in the book of life this year? Let us begin by showing deep reverence, speaking truthfully, and showing a fear of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom

Mauricio Quintero