In the previous chapter the Alter Rebbe explained that fear of G-d is a prerequisite to divine service. Every Jew is capable of attaining this level, by contemplating how “G-d stands over him” and “searches his reins and heart [to see] if he is serving Him as is fitting.” This thought will lead him to bring forth at least some measure of fear in his mind. This in turn will enable him to study Torah properly, as well as to perform both the positive and negative commandments.
The Alter Rebbe also noted that this level of fear is known as yirah tata‘ah, “lower-level fear,” which is a preparatory step to the proper performance of Torah and mitzvot. This degree of fear must be manifest, if one’s Torah study and performance of the mitzvot are to be deemed avodah, divine service.
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 42 (Listen online)
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun
In relation to God, there are many levels of yirah: yirat haromemut (awe in the presence of infinite Divine exaltedness), yirat hamalchut (awe in the presence of Divine kingship), and yirat haonesh (fear of punishment). This last level of yirah is not exclusively “pure” in its motivation (for it does not picture God directly as the object of one’s yirah), but rather derives from the kelipat nogah (translucent shell) of one’s soul experience, involving a mixture of good (for it precludes sinning) and evil (for it shadows one’s consciousness with thoughts of bad consequences).
Yirah – “Fear”
Basics in Kabbalah
I suppose “yirat haonesh” is where we all begin when we first become “aware” that God is real and God is God. In our awareness of God, we also become aware of ourselves and the obvious limitations of humanity compared to an infinite, all-powerful Divinity. Even David asked:
…what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? –Psalm 8:4 (ESV)
Before we can understand how it is to be humble, we often feel humiliated.
While the Alter Rebbe states that “fear of G-d is a prerequisite to divine service” for every Jew, I tend to believe (with apologies to the Alter Rebbe) that fear of God is a prerequisite for everyone as we approach our service to God. This was famously said as:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. –Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)
Christians reading this may think it’s strange to emphasize learning, knowledge, and wisdom, motivated by fear, as the means to divine service, but it is an exceptionally common viewpoint for a Jew. But the mistake here is to think of Yirah…fear, as an emotion. From a mystical point of view, it is so much more.
Yirah is the spiritual state associated with the sefirah of gevurah. In contrast to the heart’s initial, innate desire to give, deriving from ahavah, yirah expresses one’s deeply felt concern and fear lest one’s gift fall into the hands of an unworthy recipient who may actually misuse it destructively.
Yirah evokes gevurah, the might necessary to reject and even fight against negative and destructive forces.
The two powers of ahavah and yirah are intended to complement one another and act as a pair, as the two hands of the body in their common effort to construct or as the two wings of a bird in their flight upward. In a more general sense, yirah is understood to represent one’s sensitivity to the presence of another. Sensitivity gives rise to consideration of the other’s feelings and respect for him (as in the idiom yirat hakavod). While ahavah motivates attraction and union, yirah stands in awe from afar.
Jewish mysticism may not be your “cup of tea” but it has the benefit of explaining certain concepts we find in the Bible that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to adequately understand, let alone integrate into our lives. There is also a progression being described whereby we start at a very basic and frightening place, but then move on, step by step, into something wonderful.
The Higher Consciousness brings all things into being. Every blade of grass, every person, every event.
Therefore, he who experiences the higher consciousness does not fear any thing, nor person, nor event. In all of these he is aware only of the One who is conscious of him. And of all things.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
While a person who has just accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Master may feel both elated and terrified at the experience (if he or she has any sense at all), that’s only the starting point. Ultimately, if we truly are perfected in our faith and spiritual relationship with God, we learn to fear absolutely nothing.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. –Matthew 10:28-31 (ESV)
That’s easier said than done.
I’m not talking about who you are right now or who I am right now, but who we can be. This is all tied up with the process of development and growth of our spirits. This is why continual study, meditation, and prayer are not just things we add on to our lives, but experiences that become fully integrated into our beings. In our own humble and limited way, this is how we learn to Know God!
From a state of abject fearfulness, we can become ultimately courageous.
To achieve wonders takes a fearless heart and an open mind.
True, courage and openness are two opposite directions for the soul to travel at once. But they take place in two distinct chambers: The mind awakens to its nothingness, and the heart G-d gave you is bared in all its brazen power.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Fierce and Humble”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Admittedly, I often feel more like a sheep than a lion, but even the sheep can face danger if the Shepherd is nearby. David, as a boy, protected his flock using rocks and defended his sheep against lions. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave everything so that we, his flock, would be protected from all dangers. Once we surrender to Him from Whom comes all glory, and honor, and power, even the sheep will lie down with the lion and be perfectly at peace (Isaiah 11:6).
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. –Isaiah 11:9 (ESV)