Parshas Ekev

The nuance expressed in this short Dvar Torah is better appreciated with reference to the aramaic text in the Gemora (Tractate Brachos 33b), included below with the english paraphrasing. Our weekly portion quoting Moshe asks (Devarim 10:12)

“… What does God request from Jews?”

Moshe answers

“ only to fear the Lord your God”.

The word “only” is a challenging pursuit in life. How does Moshe seemingly minimise the fear of God, as a simple attainment, and as THE element that God asks from us?
The Talmud (ad loc.) is similarly troubled and says

“Is fear of Heaven such a simple level to obtain?”
אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא?

The Talmud answers incredulously,

“Yes, in Moshe’s domain it is a simple level to obtain”.
אין, לגבי משה מילתא זוורתא היא

The question is obvious. We are not Moshe. We didn’t speak to God and experience miracles or God’s interference in our world. God remains hidden. For us plebeians, it can’t be said that attaining the fear of Heaven is a relatively simple task.
In one of my favourite insights from Rav Soloveitchik, the Rav explains that the placement of the comma in the Talmud’s response is the key to the puzzle. Instead of reading

“Yes, in Moshe’s domain it is a simple level to obtain”.
אין, לגבי משה מילתא זוורתא היא

the Rav suggests it be read as

“Yes in Moshe’s domain,  it is a simple level to obtain”.
אין לגבי משה, מילתא זוורתא היא

Meaning, the Jew alone does not achieve this level unless they attach themselves to their respected Rabbi and teacher (לגבי משה). It is indeed a formidable mountain to climb, however, it is incumbent upon every Jew to attach themselves to the Masoretic tradition of a respected Rabbi and teacher who is able to help climbing the mountain.

“fear of heaven”.

This mechanism gives rise to the guiding principle of Judaism, Imitatio Dei, emulating Hashem, as expressed thematically throughout the Rav’s writings, through the Pasuk

והלכת בדרכיו
You should go in the way of God

This imperative is held as a positive Torah command by many Rishonim.
The Rav’s Uncle, the Griz, R’ Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, provided a further insight in his ליקוטי הגרי׳ז ב:פה. One of the Griz’s students excelled more than others. The Griz explained that this wasn’t simply a matter of that student’s innate ability and acquired knowledge. Rather, that student knew how to nullify their self-importance ביטול, and that skill is not an easy one to acquire. On the contrary, the greater the person’s skill set and knowledge is, the harder it is to suppress and bow to the opinion of his teacher and master. The statement in the Talmud that

what a servant does for their master, the student does for their master

Isn’t simply a detail, but a general principle that is applicable across the gamut of educational experience, through which one can achieve fear of God/Heaven—יראת שמים.

(Sources: מפניני הרב, ונפש הרב מאת מורי ורבי ר’ צבי שכטר שליט׳א)

Parshas Va’eschanan: Love and fear of Hashem

The Rav זי’’ע, Rav Soloveitchik asked a basic question. We are accustomed to speaking about the term אהבת השם, loving God himself. This connoted an affinity, or rapport so to speak with God. Yet, the concept of fearing God, which whilst also described as יראת השם is used in the vernacular using the more common יראת שמים, fear of heaven. We don’t find our vernacular expressing the term אהבת שמים. Purely from a symmetric consideration, we would expect that to also be a term used in our speech and prayer.

Indeed, the Pasuk says explicitly

ואהבת את השם אלוקיך

The Rav explains this difference in terminology in terms of the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva (10:6). There the Rambam explains that the level of love that the Jew can attain with God is proportional to his understanding of God’s essence. With a heightened and more sophisticated and fuller understanding of God, one is able to love him to a greater extent than before that understanding is understood, internalised and appreciated. The way in which one understand, and gains a further understanding of God has its own nuanced approaches by various sub-groups within Judaism.

The Rambam explains that a person needs to seclude themselves so to speak, and think deeply about his connection and the nature of that connection to achieve this love, and thereby closeness to Hashem himself. Love then is an effect that brings one closer to God. The more we delve, the closer and more  loving we become.

יראה fear, however is a feeling of distance. It is an awe-laden recognition of the distance between the power and majesty of God and a mere mortal. The more one cognates over this concept, the further and more fearful one becomes of the veneration and wonderment. It is for this reason that it is natural to use the term יראת שמים fear of heaven. As one develops their Jewish character, in respect of יראה, the human condition is seen to be afraid and fleeing in the same way that the sky is beyond us and hangs over us unpredictably from day-to-day.

One cannot, according to the Rav see as an outgrowth of love, אהבה, anything other than a  journey of closeness and approachability. יראה, as important as it is, is about the fearful distance which we can’t lessen, as שלמה המלך said

אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני

As wise as one may become, there is the dichotomous distance through יראה and closeness through אהבה.

The Rav
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