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Festivals of Fear
By Yisrael Rutman
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a commandment to fear God.
Of course, there is always a mitzvah (commandment) to fear God: "...What does the Lord, your God ask of you---only to fear Him..." (Deuteronomy 10:12.) And whether out of a simple fear of punishment, or a loftier fear, an awe of His presence, fear serves as a powerful deterrent against transgressing the laws of His Torah. In Hebrew, the word for fear is yirah.
But in Temple times there was a special commandment which was designed to cultivate yirah. This was the commandment to appear in the Temple precincts three times each year on the festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Exodus 23:17).
The unparalleled array of miracles which occurred there inspired in the people a great awareness of God's presence: the fire that came out of heaven and crouched in the shape of a lion on the altar; the western candle of the Menorah which burned each day (not only on Chanukah) beyond its natural supply of oil; the sight of the keruvim (cherubim) embracing each other as a sign of Divine love for Israel; the showbread which stayed warm and fresh for a whole week, from Shabbos to Shabbos: the column of smoke that rose straight up from the altar, never broken by rain or wind; the miracle of thousands of worshippers standing crowded to see these wonders, but finding ample space when they prostrated themselves; the kohanim (priests) conducting the Temple service with the awe of the Almighty written on their faces and inscribed in every quick movement.
The name of the city of Jerusalem itself---in Hebrew Yerushalayim---reflects this idea. For it is a compound of two words: yeru-shalem. Yeru, they shall fear; shalem, perfect. The City of Perfect Fear.
It was a world's fair of ruchniut (spirituality), to which whole families, men, women and children, came "to see and be seen." Unlike the modern expression which means having your new dress or fancy sports car seen by other people, it meant to see the miracles of God and to be seen by Him.
Indeed, yirah is implied in this commandment, since the Torah says, "yiraeh kol zechurcah el penei HaAdon HaShem, everyone should let himself be seen unto the face of the Lord God." According to the Sages, (Chagigah 2a) this means "to see oneself looked at by God." (Hirsch Pentateuch Exodus 23:17.)
In the writings of the most famous and influential of the modern kabbalists, the Ari, a fundamental point is made about fear of God. He shows us how the Hebrew language itself teaches us how to fear Him. For the word for fear is yirah. The word for seeing is reiah; the same letters, but in a different order. This is because fear of God goes hand in hand with the feeling that one is being seen. One who feels that he is being seen by God wherever he is, will not sin, even in his private quarters.
This mitzvah of reiah, of being seen in the Temple, is connected with one of the most extraordinary proofs of the Divine origin of the Torah. For the Torah contains the promise that no one will invade the Land of Israel when all the able-bodied males are away from home on the festivals (Exodus 34:24). No mere human being, even a Moses, could make such a promise. Only "He who neither sleeps nor slumbers, the Guardian of Israel" (Tehillim 121), could make such a promise---and keep it.
This, in turn, leads us to a deeper idea. If we heed the call of the Torah to travel to Jerusalem and the Temple to fulfill the mitzvah of reiah, to develop our fear of God, then we will merit Divine protection, and we will not have to fear the invader. If, on the other hand, we shirk this commandment, and our fear of God weakens, then we must face the reality of a threatened border, and the fear of the invader. True, if we take the normal military precautions we may be able to deter---or in the case of invasion, repel the enemy---but the fear of invasion remains with us.
In other words, we have a choice. Either we fear God, or we fear something else. Fear is built into the design of the universe. One way or another we must live with it. Our choice is what kind of fear to live with.
There is a verse to this effect in Ecclesiastes (3:14). It begins by referring to the laws of nature made by the Creator---"Whatever God does, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it..." But then the verse seems abruptly to shift to a different point---"And God has done it so that people will fear before Him." The laws of nature created by God are unchangeable...and people will fear Him... The renowned kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, explained that what the wise author of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, was teaching here, was that fear is also a law of nature. He points out, however, that there is a pause before the last word, lefanav ("before Him"). Thus, it may be read as "people will fear." Those who deny G-d's rule over the world, will admit that they live in fear of various things, but they ignore the lefanav, insisting that they do not fear G-d. But those who read the verse to the end, who delve into the depths of things, know that G-d Himself made fear an ineluctable part of human existence, and that therefore all fear is in a sense lefanav. For even those who choose to fear other things are still living in fear because of G-d.
This principle is by no means limited to the era when the Holy Temple stood. It applies no less to our own times. If we choose to deny God's existence, then we will fear something else. It may be the data probe of a vast security network, watching and recording every move we make. Or the dread of contracting AIDS. Or Friday the 13th; and the superstitious fear of unnamed malevolent forces. Or the mundane anxiety of being made redundant by economic recession. Or global warming. Or suicide bombers. Or...well, you get the picture.
Jewish tradition testifies to the existence of an all-knowing G-d. As the Sages say, "Contemplate three things and you will not come into the hands of sin---a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are written in a book." It is an anthropomorphic reference to the omniscient Creator, Who knows and records everything that we think and do. He is the Biggest Brother of them all, with the vastest, most perfect database, in which absolutely everything is contained.
God commands us to fear Him only to keep us out of the hands of sin, so that we should not forfeit all the blessings of peace and well-being that He wishes to bestow upon us. Whether we are to be the victims or the beneficiaries of the paranoid universe---the choice is ours.
This essay was adapted from a talk given by Rabbi Yechiel Yakovson.
from the September 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine