Tag Archives: yirah

God is in the Simple Places

If we were truly humble, we would not be forever searching higher paths on the mountain tops. We would look in the simple places, in the practical things that need to be done.

True, these are places in a world of falsehood. If the world only had a little more light, none of this would be necessary.

But the soul that knows its place knows that the great and lofty G-d is not found at the summit of mountains, but in the simple act of lending a hand or a comforting word in a world of falsehood and delusions.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Path of the Humble”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (ESV)

The New Testament is full of lessons on and examples of humility. The idea is that we put God first in our minds and our hearts and our actions, and not seek to exalt ourselves. And yet as we see from the lesson of the Rebbe, even in seeking God on the highest mountain tops and even into the highest Heavens, we are not truly humble.

I suppose there’s a dichotomy involved. We have our feet on earth, yet our eyes gaze upward toward Heaven. The Divine spark within us is trapped in earthly flesh but seeks to return to its fiery Source. How can we really be humble once we realize that we have been made in the Holy image of the Creator of the Universe?

This can be a problem.

The problem is that we have a tendency to elevate ourselves in relation to those around us who do not realize that they too have been created in God’s image. God peppered the Bible with many lessons on remaining humble, and yet we seem to ignore them all.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” –Luke 14:7-11 (ESV)

Human nature tells us not to pass up an opportunity because it may never come again. If there is an open seat in a place of honor, our impulse is to sit in it. Sure, we know the parable I just quoted above, but this is real life, right? Parables and religious lessons are fine, but how much do they really apply to the day to day world? If we wait for God to raise us up to a place of honor, it may never happen.

And if it doesn’t, so what?

I mean, did God really say that you have to be so important or exalted among your peers?

Let’s change our point of view a bit.

The Alter Rebbe now explains that there are also two general levels in the love of G-d. The higher level is called ahavah rabbah (“great love”). It is a gift from above, granted to an individual after he has attained the level of yirah ila‘ah. This love is so lofty that one cannot hope to achieve it unaided.

The second and lower level of love is attained by contemplating G-d’s greatness. It is called ahavat olam (“eternal love,” and more literally, “love of the world”), because it emanates from one’s comprehension of the world, i.e., from one’s appreciation of the G-dly life-force that animates the world.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 43
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

But for most of us, there’s something that has to happen before we can learn to love God in any capacity.

It has previously been noted that the higher level of love can come about only after one’s fear of G-d is total.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, end of Chapter 43

AweFear. In Jewish mysticism, there is a lower level of fear (yirah tata’ah) that we experience when we realize the truly awesome nature of God and understand the terrible consequences we have earned for our sins. It is said that fear comes before wisdom. It is also said that wisdom comes before fear of God, which seems a contradiction, but it’s not. Yirah tata’ah comes before wisdom, but there is a different sort of fear and awe that requires us to already be wise.

The explanation is as follows: The Mishnah refers to the two above-mentioned levels of fear. The first statement — “If there is no fear, there is no wisdom” — refers to the lower level of fear, yirah tata‘ah. Without this level of fear, it is impossible to attain wisdom, i.e., the performance of Torah and mitzvot. (This is deemed wisdom, since the ultimate purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds.) The second statement — “If there is no wisdom, there is no fear” — refers to the higher level of fear, yirah ila’ah. This level of fear must be preceded by wisdom, i.e., the performance of Torah and mitzvot. Only thus is one able to attain the higher level of fear.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 43

But what does this have to do with humility and setting aside our natural human inclination to seek honors for ourselves, even as we say we seek to honor God? How can we truly value and even desire humility? There are two ways.

The first is to make ourselves refrain from taking the seat of honor out of fear that, if we are discovered not to belong there, we will be publicly shamed and removed from the banquet. This is sufficient I suppose, but hardly desirable. How can we serve God out of a sort of “peer pressure” to conform, even as everything else we are in our hearts and minds screams the opposite?

The second way is to wisely realize that if we love God, we will obey Him and that His desires are always best for us, regardless of how we may or may not be seen in the eyes of people around us. The seat of humility may not be in the spotlight, but it might be very comfortable and even very instructive.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person…

-from Pirkei Avot 4:1

Most secular people avoid a life of holiness, in part, because they fear that their own needs and desires will be completely dismissed, and that they’ll be compelled to live a life of self-denial and frankly, boredom. However I’m sure that you, as a true person of faith, if you took the time to review the events of your life and the gifts of God, would realize that the benefits, even in a temporal sense, far outweigh the sacrifices. You may never become rich or famous or exalted in seats of honor in this life, but if you first learned to fear God and then to love Him, you know that what God has provided has been much more than sufficient.

God is sitting among those who are farthest from the seats of honor and He can be found in the simple places.


Spirit of Knowledge and the Fear of the Lord

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
“One Consciousness”
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)



Mystery Story

MysteryCan you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea.
Job 11:7-9

Whosoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world: what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter?Mishnah Hagigah 2:2

There are two kinds of ignorance. The one is “dull, unfeeling, barren,” the result of indolence; the other is keen, penetrating, resplendent; the one leads to conceit and complacency, the other humility. From the one we seek escape, in the other the mind finds repose.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
pp 56-7

Can we know God? I know that I’ve spent a lot of time writing blog posts about whether or not God wants to know us. My general conclusion was an incredible “yes” but then in any relationship, the current is supposed to flow both ways. Knowing God is sort of like going on a blind date with someone who has talked to our best friend and who knows all about us but we don’t know anything about her (“him” if you’re reading this and you’re female). The date can feel really one-sided and uncomfortable.

God knows all about us and we don’t really know a thing about Him…no, not really.

Sure, we have the Bible. We can read about God’s involvement with people. We can contemplate the mighty works of the Creator and marvel at His power and greatness, but the human mind cannot imagine the unimaginable. God is far beyond our ability to comprehend.

And what if we’re not even supposed to try to know His mysteries? More from Rabbi Heschel:

To the Jewish mind the ultimate enigmas remain inscrutable. “It is the glory of God to conceal things” (Proverbs 25:2). Man’s royal privilege is to explore the world of time and space; but it is futile for him to try to explore what is beyond the world of time and space…We have said..that the root of worship lies in the sense of the “miracles that are daily with us.” There is neither worship nor ritual without a sense of mystery (Heschel pg 62).

That sounds a little like a religious setup. It sounds like the line given by some crafty “holy man” to his new converts telling them that they don’t need to know anything about God. Just let the priests interpret it all for you.

I don’t think that’s what Heschel is saying, though. He isn’t really saying “don’t look under the hood”, he’s saying that it will do us no good to try because we wouldn’t understand what we were looking at. It would be like a physicist trying to explain the inner workings of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to a three year old child. Even if he or she were the top genius of all three year old kids, the child still wouldn’t “get it”. How much less can any one of us “get” the inner workings of God?

Beyond that, the mystery of God is sort of the point. The gods of myth we studied in school were all rather “knowable” because they were pretty much like human beings are. For God to really be God, the God who created the Universe and everything in it, from the largest galaxy to the smallest sub-atomic particle (and whatever else is “out there” that we don’t even know about), then He absolutely has to be beyond our comprehension. That’s the paradox of our relationship with Him. Getting to know and unknowable God.

The awareness of mystery, not often expressed, is always implied. A classical example of that awareness is the attitude toward the Ineffable Name. The true name of God is a mystery. It is stated in the Talmud, “And God said unto Moses…This is My name for ever (Exodus 3:15). The Hebrew word ‘for ever’ (leolam) is written here in a way that it may be read ‘lealem’ which means ‘to conceal’. The name of God is to be concealed.” (Heschel, pp 63-4)

There are some religious circles that won’t want to accept this conclusion, since they put a great deal of value in “knowing” and using the Ineffable Name (which they usually pronounce as “Yahweh” or something similar). Having “secret knowledge” may give some people or groups a certain thrill, but it becomes arrogant presumption to use that which you do not know, and to attempt to possess that which you are not allowed to appropriate.

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. –Exodus 20:7

The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice;
Let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. –Psalm 97:1-2

AweThis isn’t to say that people have not tried to pierce the veil between man and God. Both Christianity and Judaism enjoy a rich mystic tradition and in both the Tanakh and the Apostolic scriptures, we have examples of men going beyond the normal perceptions of the Creator and seeing much more than most of us were meant to experience. Consider the visions of the Prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. What of John’s revelation. Then there are these witnesses:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. –2 Corinthians 12:1-4

But where does that leave us?

What would be so bad about letting the mystery be the mystery? This isn’t to say we should avoid drawing closer to God and that study is futile, but the Psalmist said, “The awe (Yirah) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). The word “Yirah” in Hebrew can mean either “fear” or “awe”. Fear usually implies a reaction to potential punishment, either in this life or in the life beyond, while awe is our reaction to God in His infinite glory, and not based on whatever consequences we might end up facing:

Though He may slay me, yet I will trust Him. –Job 13:15

Jesus admonished his disciples (including us) not to worry because we have no control over the things God provides (Matthew 6:25-34). Expand his “sage advice” to include not worrying about God, who He is, what He does, how He works. If we trust Him then we do know Him, or at least we know as much as we need to know. It is said that awe (or fear) of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10), but that doesn’t have to include infinite knowledge or understanding beyond where God has placed His boundary markers. What we need to know, He’s already told us. The rest can remain a mystery, and we can be in awe.