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Reflections on Deuteronomy 10:12.

An Extract from a Lecture by [Isaac Mayer] W[ise].

(Continued from issue #5.)

אית יראה ואית יראה לא כל אפין שוין׃ (תקוני זוהר דף כ״ד)

“There is a fear (of God) and another fear (of God), but they are not alike in all respects.” These words of that mystic and parabolical book, the Zohar, disclose to our view the path in which we have to proceed, in explaining farther the twelfth verse of the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy, in extending the chain of my reflec<<286>>tions on the important words which it contains. The Hebrew word יראה has actually four equivalents in the English language: fear, awe, reverence, veneration;* wherefore the term יראה is as variable in its signification, as the above-mentioned four English equivalents of it fully denote. Let us in the first place take the two extremities of these terms under consideration. Fear signifies a painful emotion excited by an apprehension of impending danger or evil. This emotion is easily excited in man’s heart, when he beholds a power of a force superior to himself; he shrinks at the thought, that it is possible with this superior power to inflict some evil upon him; since every man in his natural state is possessed of a portion of timidity. I have stated in my first article on this subject, that it is very easy to fear God; and so it is; for God’s omnipotence is everywhere disclosed to the eye of the most common observer.

* There exist other Hebrew words for “fear” and “awe,” as but not for reverence or veneration.

Omnipotence is the first attribute of God displayed distinctly to our mind, and this naturally produces fear in our mind. Our ancestors to whom  Moses spoke, saw God’s soul-stirring miracles in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness; this naturally produced in them “the fear of the Lord;” wherefore Moses said: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord thy God require of thee? Nothing but to fear the Lord thy God;” he requires only what no man can avoid experiencing, because it forces itself upon our mind.

It is superfluous to require of a man an action which he cannot avoid doing; therefore it may seem superfluous to require “fear of the Lord” in man, since nature overpowers him with that feeling. But many feelings arise and remain unknown and disregarded, and expire in us without producing any effect; the Bible therefore mentions to us that feeling, to which we ought to pay due regard, to give it close attention, of which we should never lose sight, because it is the basis of the many noble emotions of the mind, and develope in a natural course the closely riveted chain of virtues, which I have described in my former articles as far as relates to “faith.” We are therefore told, “And Israel saw that great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the Lord, and they believed the Lord and his servant Moses.” (Exod. 14:31.)

“Veneration, our theologians styled it יראת התרוממות, signifies a sublime emotion of our mind, consisting of fear, admiration, respect, and reverence, but in such a manner that fear is almost lost among the other and nobler feelings, which are elicited in us by the mental faculties, noble virtues, and glorious deeds, of a being altogether superior to ourselves. (Awe and reverence are the steps between fear and veneration.”) A child feels veneration towards his parent; a scholar for his teacher; a virtuous man towards another man more perfect than himself; but this feeling never springs up in an ignoble mind, since it is the result of virtue.

The same may be said with regard to veneration for God: it is the result of pious deeds in man, and of a knowledge of God’s divine perfection. “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom and apply thine heart to understanding; if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver and searchest for her as for hid treasures: then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” (Prov. 2:1-5.)

As regards veneration to God, two previous acknowledgments are required: first, we must have acknowledged, that God’s divine qualities are superior to our own. Secondly, we must have  acknowledged that we ourselves possess good qualities, noble virtues, still must we think God’s qualities superior to our own. Neither of these acknowledgments could be commanded to us, since they can be obtained only by the advancement of our intellect, by the elevation of our moral sentiments and feelings, by the purification of our heart from all gross passions and carnal desires. לא נתנה התורה למלאכי השרת “The Law was not given to the ministering angels,” says the Talmud with perfect justice; but it could be commanded to us to fear God, since this is possible with every man, as we have already stated. Veneration is the consequence of אמונה “of faith,” as I have described it in my last essay; for אמונה is to know God by His divine attributes, and to know ourselves, our moral value and our power, as well as our weakness and defects. Knowing this correctly, we must have learned that God is superior to ourselves, by reason of which knowledge veneration is produced in our heart.

Veneration is the consequence of faith, and this of the fear of the Lord; we may therefore say at once that veneration to God is the sure consequence of the fear of the Lord; thus the latter was commanded unto us immediately, and the former mediately by the attainment of the latter. We advance from fear to veneration gradually (the degrees we have described); wherefore we also proceed from fear to awe, to reverence, to veneration, which is the true meaning of the phraseכי אם ליראה את ה׳ אלהיך “Nothing but to fear the Lord thy God.” The Talmud understood the phrase as we have just explained it, and asked וכי יראה דבר קטן הוא “Is then veneration to God a small acquirement?” It answers thereupon: “In the presence of Moses it was easy enough.” By virtue of his instructions it was indeed easy enough to advance from fear to veneration. So did David understand the term יראה (fear) when he said: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever.” And so did Moses when saying: “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God.” (Deut. 28:58.)

Having thus shown that veneration is actually the consequence of the fear of the Lord, and that we have only progressed in our course up to veneration, it will now be in the right place and in the proper order, to view the consequences of veneration. First, יראה מביאה לידי עניוות “Veneration produces meekness.” I use here this word in its widest sense; for we find God so much exalted above ourselves; He is the Creator and we are the creatures; He is the benign Benefactor, and we the recipients of his goodness; He is the Infinite Wisdom, the Eternal Source of rational power, and we are but endowed with this faculty as much as to know how little we are if compared with Him; He is the King and Preserver of the universe, and we are but a drop of the vast ocean of this Grand All, but a slight phenomenon, a passing shadow, a withering flower in His world. God is so much exalted above ourselves, that we cannot do otherwise than be humble before Him, submit our wishes, and desires, and passions, to His divine will, and devote our life to serve Him, to worship, to adore Him. He is so kind, so good and benign, that we can be but kind and benign towards all beings; He is so wise, so powerful and good, that we can but trust in Him, having a <<289>>full confidence to Him, and not have fear of nor trust in any being under the sun. Meekness made Moses to be a Moses, and David to be a David; it is the spirit which breathes in almost all the Psalms, and makes Jeremiah’s words so simply sublime, so powerful and affecting. אין לך מדה גדולה יותר מענוה “No good quality is greater than meekness,” states the Talmud. This is it what the Mishna callsקבלת עול מלכות שמים “The receiving on ourselves of the yoke of Heaven.” So also says the Zohar:

(הגהות הזוהר דף ו׳) כתיב (משלי כ״ב ד׳) עקב ענוה יראת ה׳ מאן דאית ביה יראת ה׳ אייתי ליה לידי ענוה וגו׳

“It is written in the Proverbs 22:4: The cause of meekness is the fear of the Lord: he who has in himself fear of the Lord, will be brought by it to meekness.”

(זוהר קמ״ה) רבי יצחק פתח וחסד ה׳ מעולם ועד עולם על יראיו כמה גדולה היראה לפני הקב״ה שבכלל היראה ענוה וגו׳

“Rabbi Isaac said, It is said in Psalms, ‘And the grace of the Lord is from eternity to eternity upon those who venerate Him.’ How greatly regarded is veneration before God, for in veneration meekness also is included.”

II. Veneration to God produces regard for our fellow-man and for ourselves. It has been and is now the case to some extent, that some Christian sects and even some ignorant Jewish writers of the middle ages beheld in man a being sinful and perverse, inclined to vice and corruption: this would be, of course, a wrong done by Him that made him so, and render man irresponsible for his deeds; it would excuse the worst criminal, and constitute Nero, Paul of Russia, and Robespierre, to be merely natural men. Jews who have written so, have been entirely ignorant of their holy religion; and Christians have used this erroneous principle to justify their absurd belief in Jesus as a sacrifice for the original sin, as an atonement for our natural corruption. Both of them have not learned to venerate the Lord our God; for if they had learned it truly, they would not accuse Him of unrighteousness, neither would they suppose that He is so cruel as to have created man to be unhappy, to travel the journey of life in pain and distress, in the midst of sorrow and grief, which are the natural consequences of vice and sin. Many Christians have so long been accustomed, and have been forced to do so by the persevering efforts of their priests, to speak of Jesus, the carpenter’s son, as of a deity, that they now speak and think <<290>>of God as of a Jesus: many ignorant Jews have so long and strongly believed all sorts of fables and unreasonable sayings, that they now speak and think of God as of other objects of their fables and dark sayings. But the son of the carpenter once viewed as a God has ceased to exist in this quality, and so have vanished also the fables and mysteries and dark sayings of former times, for the sunbeams of modern science have swept them away; and we have now to lament an innumerable host of Christian and Jewish infidels who, in rejecting falsehood, have also forgotten the truth, and “of the Parent that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten the God that formed thee.” (Deut. 32:18.)

The Bible represents man as the image and likeness of God; man reflects God’s majestic beauty, and is the living witness of His utmost perfection. God rested after He had created man, because man is his agent on earth; God commenced the creation, and man was appointed to finish it; God governs us, and we are enabled and charged to govern the earth and all that fills it; and history records that mankind has always done so. If one now venerates God, will he not also have regard for man,—God’s image, God’s agent, the witness and reflex of His perfection? It was therefore in a deep spirit of veneration for God and love for man, that Moses said, “Ye are sons of the Lord Your God.” In this spirit was it that the prophets called God our Father, and us His first-born son. In was in this spirit that King David lived and acted, and in this spirit he spoke and sung, and thus he uttered his simple sublime words: “And Thou (God) hast made him (man) a little less than a deity, and has crowned him with honours and glory. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all this under his feet. All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fishes of the sea; he forceth paths through the sea. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name through all the earth.” (Ps. 8.) Thus is man, and so is he regarded by those who truly venerate the Lord.

This veneration towards mankind elevates us to a knowledge of ourselves, a proper estimation of our inherent power, equally far removed from pride, the lust for power, and egotism, as from cringing submissiveness, hypocrisy, and flattery of man; it is literally the source of mutual esteem, peace, union, harmony, <<291>>and love among men, and it gives a real value to life, by its imparting confidence and satisfaction to our mind.

III. Veneration produces יראת חטא “the fear to commit sin.” The fear of God, we have stated, produces also the fear to commit sin; but as long as man moves in this lower religious condition, he fears to commit a sin because he dreads God’s power to punish; he trembles before the injurious consequences of vice, only because he fears that God might deprive him of the earthly possessions he enjoys, the riches which he possesses,

אית יראה דדחיל בר נש להקב״ה בנין דלא ילקי ליה ברצועה וההיא יראת ה׳ דאקרי יראת רעה׃ (תיקונים דף ע״ב)

“There is a kind of fear when a man fears God, so that He may not inflict on him some tangible punishment; this fear of the Lord is called dread of evil.” This is actually not fearing the sin, but its consequences; still we can say here, מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה “though the beginning be from improper motives, it may lead us at length to act from the proper motive.”

Veneration effects in us an abhorrence of sin or vice itself, merely because it is a vice or sin. Veneration to God is actually a predominant reverence to virtue, a noble pleasure in morality, piety, and purity; this, however, must naturally effect in us an abhorrence against vice and immorality. There may still exist in such a mind some impure passions; but the spirit will be sufficiently strengthened to keep them down and subdue them. The thought that God hates vice and sin, that they separate us from Him, and lower us to a state on a level with brutal existence, urges on the spirit to overrule our passions. The conviction that by surrendering to our passions they will deprive us of our liberty, causes the man that duly estimates the heavenly spirit within him, to shrink back from vice and sin; the mere idea that vice weakens the mental powers, and prevents the development of the greatness of our soul, is a sufficient cause to make vice appear unto him as the most terrible evil of life. And as “the fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom,” (Prov. 15:33,) so is the avoiding of sin and vice in reality the perfection of wisdom.

אמר ר׳ יודן אמר דוד לפני הקב״ה תודיעני ארח חיים אמר לו הקב״ה דוד חיים את בעי צפה ליראה שנאמר יראת ה׳ תוסיף ימים. (פסיקתא)

Rabbi Judan said: “David prayed to God, Make the path of life known unto me; thereupon did God answer him, David, dost thou <<292>>want life? then look to the fear of me, for it is written, The fear of the lord multiplies the days.” And this is literally true, if we consider that virtue and morality are the tree of life.* This יראת חטא was the reason that Israel, as a nation, never forsook the religion of Heaven for the sake of earthly goods; and though neglected from other causes, our sons never went altogether astray, nor were our daughters demoralized; nor was the hatred of man ever chargeable to us as a national fault. By virtue of this יראת חטא the Israelite will understand how to cast away his riches, his home, his liberty, yea, to despise his life, and adhere fearlessly and full of confidence to his God and His sacred word. The cruelty of tyrants, and the blind and fanatical fury of the savage multitude, could not cause the Israelite to turn from his God; because he feared to commit sin, and this he did because of his veneration to God.

* Arrived at such a perfection as I have just now described, our mental liberty and our faith also are elevated to a higher and purer degree, as the reader will easily understand.

IV. יראת מביאה לידי חסידות Veneration produces piety. I understand under חסידות “piety,” the wish of our heart to honour our God, to express our feeling of veneration by some outward means, whatever its name may be.

It is natural, that we should wish to honour him whom we venerate; veneration carries in itself the conviction, that the venerated object is honourable, wherefore the child honours his parent, the scholar his teacher, &c. “And if I am a father, where is mine honour? am I a Lord, where is my fear?” Thus expressed the prophet this very same idea. “Honour the Lord from thy substances,” said Solomon. As to the means, which shall express our wish to honour the Lord, we think that the Bible gives the best method. If we now wish to honour God, we must of course look into the book wherein there is written what ceremonies God himself has taught us to honour Him with; if a child desires to honour his parent, he will listen to the parent’s word to know how he wishes to be honoured. This is the reason that the Jews always observed so strictly the ceremonies prescribed in the Sacred Book, and we know of no reason why we should not do so now. This observance of all ceremonies in order to honour our God is called חסידות piety; and we thus will <<293>>be enabled  to understand the words of the famous רי״א:   

גדולה יראת התרוממות שמביאה לידי ענוה לידי יראת חטא בגלל חטא׃ גדולה יראת התרוממות שמביאה לידי חסידות חיים ושלום׃

“Great is the veneration of the Lord, as it conduces to meekness, and to the fear of sin because it is a sin. Great is this veneration, it leads to piety, life, and peace.” (See Psalm  128:1, “Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord, that walks in his ways,” &c., and Psalm 112:1, “Praise ye the Lord. Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in His commandments.”)

אדרה זוטא דף קמ״ד פתח רבי חייא ואמר מ״ד מכבדי אכבד ובוזי יקלו דחילו בפיקידין דל״ת איקירו בפיקודין דעשה עלייהו אתמר כל מכבדי אמבד וכל אינון דעברין על לא תעשה עלייהון אתמר ובוזי יקלו׃

“Rabbi Chiya said, What is meant by the verse ‘They who honour me shall be honoured, and they who despise me shall be despised?’ Of those who fear the Lord, by not doing what He has prohibited in his negative precepts, and honour Him by doing what He has commanded in the affirmative precepts, it was said, ‘Who honour me shall be honoured,’ and of those who do what God has prohibited, it was said, ‘They who despise me shall be despised.’” I now wish, kind reader, that you may review the four articles I have furnished you on this subject, and I hope that you will thus have a complete explanation on the first requirement of our sacred faith, which is literally ליראה את ה׳ אלהיך “to fear the Lord thy God.”

You will find that man is so constituted, that he can elevate himself from instinct to mental liberty, from ignorance to “knowledge of God derived from his attributes,” from fear to veneration, from arrogance to meekness, if he only learns to fear God earnestly. You will find that all this may come to pass, and that a man may become as pious and as good as a Prophet, without having been moved by the Holy Ghost, or having received a religious feeling from above, even without our heart having been circumcised from God, or without one taking away our sins by dying on the cross; these phrases, as generally used, mean actually nothing at all, as also that common expression “to be saved through a mediator;” for they cannot be explained upon any rational ground, but they have been repeated so often, that they are rooted in some minds. These things have been believed, because it is very convenient to be saved, moved, and sanctified, without trouble, by merely sitting still and awaiting <<294>>God’s grace; to go, however, through the various degrees which we have described, is a little hard, and requires courage, firmness, and resolution. But for us, as Jews, it is requisite to be rational in our religion, not to depend on others for the deeds which we are to do; therefore you must in the first place earnestly endeavour to learn “to fear the Lord thy God.”

(To be continued.)