In this week’s Parsha, Moshe continues to address the Jewish people and to impress upon them the importance of keeping the Torah properly, and the reward which will be afforded to those who do, and on the flip side, the severity of the recompense a person will receive for not adequately abiding by the Torah’s holy laws. However, there is one particular equation in this week’s Parsha which does not seem to add up correctly. The Torah says that if a person says to himself, “I will go upon my path, everything will be okay”, Hashem will not forgive him and the verses go on to say the terrible punishment he will receive. I believe that this “non-commensurate” response requires a bit of explanation.
The famous Mashgiach, R’ Chazkal Levenstein explains beautifully that when a person says to himself that he will embark on his path and everything will be fine, he is lacking the most rudimentary and fundamental trait that a Jew is required to possess – the fear of Heaven. A person who fosters a cavalier attitude about his life and his actions has no hope of ever returning to Torah observance, whereas a person who visualizes the consequences of his actions assumes a true level of responsibility for his misdeeds, and will do everything in his power to ensure that his mistakes are not repeated. It is specifically for this reason that the Torah tilts all the punishment dials to the right when it comes to this kind of stance. It is to show us how far we need to stay away from this casual approach and how necessary it is for us to work on our level of fear of retribution for our actions. We have to always drive home the reality that if we sin, there will be very real and very unpleasant countermeasures for that sin, and allow the fear of those countermeasures to always motivate us to do the right thing.
The famous Tosafos in Shabbos (88) ask a fantastic question. The Gemorah teaches us that in order for Hashem to have ensured that the Jews would accept the Torah properly, He held a mountain over their heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, then fine, and if you don’t, you will now be buried”. Needless to say, they accepted the Torah. Tosafos ask if the Jews accepted the Torah at Sinai with the famous remark “נעשה ונשמע” – “We will do, and then we will hear”, why was it necessary for Hashem to then go and hold a mountain over their heads? Tosafos give their own answer, but The Maharal from Prague answers that although the Jews at Sinai were enthused with a predominant desire to do the will of Hashem forever the moment they uttered that famous declaration, we all know that when the inspiration which led to that moment would begin to die down with time, their resolve may not hold as strong as it once was. I am sure that many of us can testify to the truth of this statement of the Maharal in our own lives. It was precisely for this reason that Hashem held a mountain over their heads. It was to teach them that although inspiration is wonderful, it is not enough. We need to always maintain a constant level of trepidation at the thought of transgressing the word of the Torah. This fear and this alone will be instrumental in helping us to keep our lusts in check during a time of temptation. When we feel a pull toward a particular sin, there is a specific commandment in the Torah to arouse ourselves to feel terrified about the retribution we will receive if we cannot hold our excitement for that sin at bay, and the Torah is teaching us that only this type of fight will truly be effective at curbing our passions.
R’ Yitzchak B’lazar asks a fascinating question. He proposes that if fear of Heaven is so integral to our service, then it should have been hardwired into our system, much the same way fear of danger or survival instincts is. Why wouldn’t Hashem have built us with these components if He expected us to succeed in our service of Him? R’ Yitzchak explains that had we possessed the same fear of Hashem that we do of worldly dangers, we would essentially be robots. The factor which makes us human, and differentiates us from every other inhabitant of this earth, is our ability to choose right from wrong. If we would fear Hashem like we do a shark, there would be no room for us to err. You don’t find many human beings swimming in shark infested water. Although it is difficult to reach this level of fear, this is exactly what we were created to do.
What are some practical methods a person can use to achieve a higher plane of consciousness in this area? Firstly, it goes without saying that learning Mussar with great enthusiasm and fervor is certainly effective in increasing one’s general level of awareness of Hashem. Another powerful tool one can implement is to boost his feeling during the prayer and blessings he recites during the day. But I would like to share with you something R’ Nachum Zev from Kelm used to do. He would go every week to visit the sick people in the hospital in order to help enhance his fear of Heaven. He would explain that although we all know that Hashem is running the world, and we could be sick or healthy at any time of day based on His say so, Chazal says we cannot compare knowing something to seeing it. When one sees the terrible disfigurements and suffering a human being can become exposed to based on no bad choices of his own, one will certainly begin to inculcate a very real sense of reward and punishment, and how vulnerable we really are at any given time.
During this period we find ourselves in, fear of Heaven is probably the most precious commodity a human being can have in his possession. Although it is somewhat difficult to come by, let us look to the Gedolim for some examples of outstanding success in achieving fear of Hashem. The famous Rebetzin Yaffe writes about her father the Beis Halevi; “During the month of Elul, my father was virtually inaccessible. There was a palpable fear in the air as if there were some capital court case about to happen, and my father was on trial, and if he lost, he would be taken out to the gallows to be hung publicly.” One of the Brisker Rav’s students once asked him whether or not all the scary feelings Chazal write about the month of Elul are to be taken literally. The Brisker Rav responded, “of course they are. In fact, two week’s before Rosh Hashana, I can’t even taste any of my food!” Once another student met the Rav on the street shortly before Rosh Hashana and asked him how he was feeling. The Rav responded that he was feeling a little scared about the upcoming judgment and that he needed to repent. The student asked the Rav in surprise if even the Rav needed to repent. The Rabbi looked at the man like he was crazy, and asked his Gabbai to check if the student had suffered any sort of brain injury, and remained upset at that question the rest of the day. Although these giants clearly were able to attain an extremely heightened sense of fear of Heaven, and we are perhaps just taking baby steps to make inroads into our development, it behooves us to do everything in our power to avoid the attitude we described above in this week’s Parsha that everything will be fine, regardless of our actions, and instead replace it with one of genuine concern that our behavior is not quite up to par, and return to Hashem with all of our hearts.
May we all merit to work on our level of fear of Heaven and earn a wonderful sweet new year filled with every blessing!