This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai is not one of the funner Torah readings. It contains the Tochacha, sometimes called The Admonition or Reproof and is a very disturbing part of the Torah where God describes, in painful detail, the evils that will befall the Jewish people if we choose to abandon a close relationship with Him. At the time that Moshe said these words it was prophecy, but today it has become a sad part of our history. While the parsha starts with the good news – the blessings that will result by listening to God and following His mitzvot – most of it is devoted to the troubling alternative.
Reward and Punishment are generally not discussed in polite company, not being most people’s favorite topic. This is especially true in our day and age where happy and fun reign supreme and being chastised is a huge downer. Too often we want to shy away from such issues. But ostrich-like behavior is never a good thing and we need to get some sort of understanding of how to deal with the Torah’s dire threats that are mentioned here and again in Deuteronomy.
Jewish tradition stresses that there are two distinct avenues by which one can connect with God and that both are indispensable for a full relationship with Him. One is through אהבה Love and the other is through יראה Fear. In actuality, it isn’t only Judaism that has this system as these two diverse approaches apply to most other areas in life as well.
To illustrate, there are times in life when we act out of Love and Affection, when there’s an obvious and apparent enjoyment to the activity in the relationship and it gives us meaning, pleasure and fulfillment. Nobody needs to twist our arm to take a nice vacation with the wife, or to hang with the kids at a hockey or baseball game, or have a bbq with family and friends. We happily involve ourselves during those joyous moments that only build and solidify relationships.
On the other hand, there are those things we have to do in life because we really don’t have any other choice. It’s simply an obligation – no more and no less. Nobody likes to pay their bills, but sitting in a home without electricity isn’t exactly a picnic. I have yet to meet someone excited and thrilled to pay the Regulatory Programs & Telco Recovery Fee or the Federal Universal Service Fund fee on their cellphone bill. But what are you gonna’ do – if you don’t, they will discontinue your service. We don’t make these payments out of any great love for T-Mobile or the government, but simply because not doing so will have repercussions. The resulting consequence of cut phone lines is more painful than the obligatory act of paying them.
The word for fear in Hebrew is yirah. It is related to the Hebrew word, roeh – whose root means “to see”. The notion of fear in Judaism, as in “Fear of God”, means to see, to look closer and perceive the long-term consequences of one’s actions and choices.
We do this all the time as parents in our effort to have our kids see things beyond the here and now. The job of raising children is educating them to see the long-term effects of their choices. And that’s why we react (or over-react according to the kids) to their behavior in such dramatic and strong terms. We know we have a limited time to shape, teach and influence them and so we judge their choices not merely as actions being done in the present, but moreso in creating habits that will affect the rest of their lives. So while there has to be large doses of Love in raising children, there must be equally large doses of Fear or discipline to sensitize them to the lasting effects of their behavior that will shape their future.
Just as importantly, Fear of dumb choices and their consequences often keeps us in check from silly, harmful and damaging behavior. How often do we hear of public figures who forget this simple truth, engage in reckless and stupid actions that compromise their position, future and family, leaving us to scratch our heads and wonder, “What were they thinking?” If we don’t give regular and serious thought of the ultimate outcome of our choices, we can forever damage the beautiful and fragile things in life that mean the most to us.
To take it a step even further, Fear can create an invigorating edge to life and is only debilitating when it results in paralysis. The Wall Street Journal just had a piece on how anxiety is often useful and “prompts your mind and body into action. Your worries impel you to prepare meticulously, while your heart races and pumps blood to your brain so that you stay sharp and focused, primed to pursue your goal.”
The positive use of Fear and its cousin, Anxiety is that it makes us feel aware and alive. We all have experienced times when we are totally engaged in something, utilizing all our senses and pushing our efforts full throttle, operating on all cylinders, because to make one slip-up can result in a life-altering outcome. The surgeon, the sports figure in the finals, the student taking a final or the mother of 7 juggling a myriad of details flying at her from every direction – whenever we find ourselves in those instances where so much is on the line, the key is not to shrink in those moments but instead to turn it up a notch. Fear is a spice that allows us to maximize our potential and push our abilities into a higher gear. These are the times where Fear is to be embraced and cherished, not shunned and avoided.
We have nothing to fear with Fear and we should take full advantage of this natural steroid that keeps our lives full, meaningful and alive. And if there is any people and nation who has embraced Fear and learnt to live with it – to be in a constant state of awareness of what might happen if we let up – it is we Jewish people who are challenged from all sides – both today and throughout history. And because of this, it is no accident that no other people has had a more glorious, productive and creative history that can be described as anything but boring. Fear has kept us on edge and kept us ahead.
So don’t be afraid of Fearing God. A little bit of Fear is good. Living on the edge every once in a while is even better.
I’ve come far to find Big Jim
Well here I am and I guess you him
I see how you got your name
You’re tall as hell and broad as a train
They say you a hard-born man
And the baddest guy in the whole wide land
Well I’m not afraid to fight
Let’s step outside and I’ll show you why
You know I bet he’s not so tough
Ain’t afraid of him ‘cause I’m a fool for love