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Yirat Hashem — Fear of God

August 10, 2015

There was a fascinating article in yesterday’s Ha’aretz titled “Inside the World of Ultra-Orthodox Newsrooms: Haredim in Their Own Words” (  It describes a bit of the history of the Chareidi newspapers, how editorial decisions are made, and yes it talks about printing pictures of women, photoshopping them, etc.  It then contains brief features on the three leading English language Chareidi news publications.  The article quotes Pinchos Lipschutz, editor-in-chief of the Yated Ne’eman.  When asked about the mission of the Yated, Lipshutz points his finger towards heaven and says “Any home that has the Yated their fear of heaven goes up 10 percent.”

While it might be interesting to conduct a scientific experiment to see if Lipschutz’s claims hold true, he does seem to be in good company in his description of the fear of heaven, yirat Shamayim.

In our parsha, Moshe seems to give us the secret of life, all bundled up in one succinct pasuk:

דברים פרשת עקב פרק י

 (יב) וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ:

  And now Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? But to fear the Lord your God ,to walk in his ways and to love him and to serve the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul.

The Gemara (Brachot 33b) is troubled by Moshe’s seemingly casual treatment of yirat Shamayim:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לג עמוד ב

ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים – חוץ מיראת שמים, שנאמר : ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה.אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא? והאמר רבי חנינא משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים, שנאמר: ביראת ה’ היא אוצרו! – אין, לגבי משה מילתא זוטרתא היא. דאמר רבי חנינא: משל, לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול ויש לו – דומה עליו ככלי קטן – קטן ואין לו – דומה עליו ככלי גדול.

Rabbi Hanina further said: Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven,  as it says, And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear.  Is the fear of heaven such a little thing? Has not R. Hanina said in the name R. Simeon b. Yohai: The Holy One, blessed be He, has in His treasury nought except a store of the fear of heaven, as it says, The fear of the Lord is His treasure? — Yes; for Moses it was a small thing; as R. Hanina said: To illustrate by a parable, if a man is asked for a big article and he has it, it seems like a small article to him; if he is asked for a small article and he does not possess it, it seems like a big article to him.

To put this in modern day terms, it might be compared to watching a show on the Food Network where one of the professional chefs introduces the show by saying today we’re going to just whip up a simple dish of rack of lamb, homemade pasta and super simple nine cheese cheesecake with a decadent caramel sauce in less than 10 minutes.

The question begs itself.  Even if yirat Shamayim was a small thing for Moshe, did he really think that it was so simple for the rest of us?

The Torah Temimah maintains that this was, in fact, Moshe’s thinking.  Since the Torah tells us of Moshe (Bamidbar 12:3):

וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה ענו עָנָיו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:

The man Moses was extremely humble, more than all men upon the earth

Moshe was not aware of his greatness.  He assumed that if something came easily to him, it must come easily to others as well.

Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444, Spain), author of Sefer ha-Ikarim, an important work of Jewish philosophy, has a different approach.  He explains that Yirat Hashem represents the end goal of following Torah and Mitzvot. Yirat Hashem is what results when a person follows the Torah and mitzvot:

“Fear is that state of mind which is acquired through the commandments of the Torah and is the noblest disposition for a man to acquire.  It can only be acquired after great pains and efforts.”

Proof of this is that Avraham is only described as possessing the trait of Yirat Hashem after the Akeida, his final of ten trials. (Breishits 22:12)

Albo explains that it is exceedingly difficult for a person to attain the requisite amounts of fear, love and service of Hashem.  God, therefore made things easier for us by requiring that we perform the mitzvot so that we may be impacted by them to achieve levels of fear, love and worship of God.  Following the mitzvot leads to fear of God.  Or, at least it should.

In light of current events, though, we have to ask what happens when performance of the mitzvoth does not lead toyirat Shamayim?  What happens, when God forbid, it leads to the opposite?

These are not theoretical questions, but are very real questions playing themselves out in Israel and the Jewish community at this very moment.  In the time since I spoke last, there has been an outpouring of one horrific event after another in Israel, all done in the name of religion.  I refer of course to the murder of Shira Banki, a 16-year old girl who was stabbed while attending the gay pride parade in Jerusalem and the others who were injured in the horrific attack.

Just as we were coming to grips with this tragedy news of a second tragedy, also perpetuated by Jews acting in the name of God unfolded.  The burning of the home of the Saad family in a “price tag” attack, resulting in the death of 18-month old Ali Saad.

As Israel and the Jewish people engages in serious soul searching after these events, there have been many passionate and eloquent statements issued by rabbis, politicians journalists, and private citizens.  I have nothing to add.  Let me just share with you one brief quote from Rabbi Benny Lau, speaking at a rally last Motzei Shabbat protesting against the parade stabbing (

“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?… “We must free the Torah of Israel from the handcuffs that she has been bound in by people of darkness,” he said. “The Torah is a Torah of light, and Judaism must illuminate the world.”

Let me conclude with one final thought.  The Sforno highlights that Moshe’s great question “What does the Lord your God ask of you” is preceded by the words ועתה ישראל “And now Israel, what does the Lord ask of you…”  He notes that this immediately follows Moshe’s description of the חטא העגל (sin of the Golden Calf).  The Sforno explains that we should read our verse as:

ספורנו דברים פרשת עקב פרק י

ועתה ישראל. אם כן אתה ישראל השתדל עתה לתקן מעוותך מכאן והלאה והתבונן מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך שאינו שואל דבר לצרכו כי אם ליראה. וזה תעשה בהתבוננך באופן שתדע גדלו:

Being that you are Israel, try NOW to fix your mistakes moving forward and understand that God asks of you to fear Him.

We too must fix our mistakes and the mistakes of our fellow Jews to ensure that the lives of Torah which we live will lead to fear, love and service of God.


From → Parsha

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