The Torah clearly expects us to feel both love and awe for God:
“And now, Israel, what does God want of you? Only that you remain in awe of the Lord your God, following in all His paths and loving Him.” (Deut. 10:12)
What is awe of God? Why is this trait so important?
Two Types of Awe
Awe exists on different levels. The qualities of “yirat shamayim” (awe of Heaven) and “yirat cheit” (literally, ‘fear of sin’, but better translated as ‘repulsion from sin’) share the same root. “Yirat shamayim” is theoretical, in the mind and heart. “Yirat cheit”, on the other hand, is practical, in deed and action. As a result of our perception of God’s greatness, we feel reverence towards Him — “yirat shamayim” — and are acutely aware of the repugnance of sin — “yirat cheit”.
(There is a third type of fear, “yirat onesh” — ‘fear of punishment’. However, this trait reflects a weak personality; it is not a beneficial trait that should be emulated.)
Love and Awe
Love and Awe are opposite traits. The positive attraction to good and holiness inevitably leads us to wisdom and love. The negative revulsion from all that is evil and defiling purifies our thoughts and actions. These are converse traits, yet they are interconnected. Because of our attraction to good, we are repelled by evil; and by avoiding evil, we remain on the path of life, directed towards positive aspirations and yearnings.
The Sages disagreed on the basic question: which is the more important trait? Which quality is greater — love of God, or awe of Heaven?
The Talmud (Shabbat 31b) relates that once Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Simon were sitting together, when a third scholar passed by. Rabbi Elazar told Rabbi Simon, ‘Let us stand up out of respect for this God-fearing individual.’ Rabbi Simon replied, ‘Let us stand up for this Torah scholar.’ Rabbi Elazar retorted, ‘I mentioned his greater quality — that he is God-fearing — and you insist on emphasizing a lesser one!’
According to Rabbi Elazar, awe of Heaven is the more fundamental trait. He would often say, “God has only awe of heaven in His world.” He further declared that awe of God is the basis of all wisdom; in fact, it is the only true wisdom in the world. What does this mean?
The Foundation of Wisdom
Rabbi Elazar based his opinion by examining God’s purpose in creating the universe. This riddle cannot be solved through a positive standpoint. To posit that creation enabled some positive gain implies that this process brought about improvement and advance. Yet, the height of perfection already existed before Creation, with God’s sole existence. What gain was there in creating the world and its inhabitants?
The benefit in creating the world can only be understood from a negative perspective, in the intended creation of a limited world. That which is finite is naturally drawn towards the infinite. The very limitation of all things in their value and purpose is the ultimate good that the universe receives from its Creator. The most sublime relationship to God is in this amazing sense of distance and awe. It is from these feelings of awe that all positive yearnings and love are developed.
When we acquire this form of wisdom, through contemplation of the Infinite in order to feel awe and reverence, a sublime “yirat shamayim” makes its mark on the soul. These feelings of awe will generate an intense love and longing to contemplate the light of God and His ways, His mitzvot and His Torah. This is the meaning of Rabbi Elazar’s statement, “God has only awe of heaven in His world.” Besides awe, nothing else needs to exist. Nothing else can exist. When the mind’s inner image of reverence expresses itself externally in the world of deeds, it produces a practical revulsion from sin. By avoiding all obstacles, we can ascend the path towards the sublime light from the Source of life.
This profound image, secreted in the depths of the mind, identifies the finite nature of the universe as the primary force in both Creation and practical ethical behavior. “Behold, awe of God — that is wisdom!” (Job 28:28) Awe of God is the only true wisdom; it is the foundation for all other studies. Thus, Rabbi Elazar found awe of heaven to be the most fundamental and inclusive trait, and he honored the passing scholar for possessing this supreme quality.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 157)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison