Our sources describe our relationship with the Almighty in terms of two disparate emotions: fear and love. The connection with God many seek is a bond based solely on love. We often shy away from developing a healthy fear or awe of the Almighty.
In a catchy proverb, our sages tell us that cultivating the attribute of awe is exclusively our duty (B. Berachot 33b): "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven (yirat shamayim)." Physical characteristics and even personality traits are all directed from above, but whether a person will be God-fearing is not dependent on the Almighty; we bear sole responsibility for whether we have yirat shamayim.
Our sages provide scriptural support for this notion. Moses asks: "And now, Israel, what does God your Lord ask of you?" A question many of us ask ourselves. Moses's answer, however, is not undemanding: "Merely to fear God your Lord in order to walk in His paths and serve God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 10:12). Moses relates that all the Almighty asks of the Jewish people is to be God-fearing, for everything else will be taken care of by the Almighty's hand.
A careful reading of the biblical verse indicates that Moses himself did not see yirat shamayim as a challenging prospect, for the Almighty "merely" requested it of humans. The Talmud queries this assertion: "Is fear of heaven a small matter?" For Moses, the Talmud explains, it was a trifling matter; for us, it is a true challenge. The Talmud illustrates the difference with a parable: If you are asked for a large vessel that you have in your possession, the request seems like no big deal and the vessel requested appears to be a mere insignificant container. If you are asked for even a small vessel and you do not have it, however, you feel that you have been asked for a large vessel that is difficult to acquire. Yirat shamayim, for those who aspire to acquire it, appears to be a formidable challenge.
It may hardly be comforting that Moses saw the acquisition as an easy prospect. Yet at least we have a paradigm of a human who felt that yirat shamayim was not an insurmountable challenge.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, our sages compare the acquisition of Torah scholarship with achievement of yirat shamayim (B. Shabbat 31a-b): Any person who has acquired Torah but has no yirat shamayim is like the custodian of a treasure who has been given the keys to the inner chambers but not the keys to the outer doors; how is such a person to enter? Yirat shamayim may not unlock the deepest secrets held within, but without it access to even the outer areas is precluded. Yirat shamayim is thus the first step on a spiritual quest and is a prerequisite for entering into the realm of the Almighty.
An account of two sages sitting together illustrates the value of yirat shamayim and Torah accomplishment. A certain scholar walked past and one of the learned onlookers commented: "Let us stand before a person who fears sin." His erudite companion saw the passerby in a different light: "Let us stand before a person who has acquired Torah." The first onlooker responded: "I said that the scholar fears sin and you tell me that he has acquired Torah." You have diminished his praises (Rashi, 11th century, France). Not only is yirat shamayim a precondition for Torah, its acquisition is more praiseworthy.
The challenge of developing yirat shamayim is thus a worthy undertaking, one that should be nurtured from a young age. The Bible relates the commandment of Hakhel where men, women and children gathered in Jerusalem in the year following the Sabbatical. At this grand assembly, the Torah was read publicly to teach, to inculcate awe of the Almighty and advocate keeping its precepts.
Why were the young children to be brought along? Surely they could not understand the lessons being taught? The verse explains: And their children, who do not know anything, may hear and learn to fear God your Lord all the days that you live on the land that you are now crossing the Jordan to inherit (Deuteronomy 31:13).
One of the commentators saw the educational value of the Hakhel gathering in training the young in attribute of yirat shamayim even though they had yet to begin their formal studies (Rabbi Hayyim ibn Atar, 18th century, Morocco-Jerusalem). The verse further indicates that yirat shamayim is a characteristic that must be learned; it is not a characteristic implanted at birth.
The Psalmists says: God will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him (Psalms 145:19); but what happens if our desire is to become one of those who fear the Almighty? Since fear of heaven is entirely within the realm of humans, we cannot expect that God will fulfill this desire. People seeking to bolster their yirat shamayim may question the efficacy of the traditional avenue of prayer: How we ask God to grant us yirat shamayim?
In the opening passage of his Torah commentary, Toldot Aron, Rabbi Aron of Zhytomyr (d. 1816) relates to this conundrum offering two practical suggestions. First he recommends a daily regimen of looking up to the sky and considering the wonders of the world. Perceiving the miraculous phenomena of this world and sensing the work of the creator will instill a fear and awe of the Almighty.
Pointedly, Rabbi Aron warns that one cannot achieve the lofty attribute of yirat shamayim overnight, "for yira cannot be acquired cheaply or easily."
Therefore, Rabbi Aron offers a complementary suggestion. One should beseech the Almighty: "Give me a pure heart that I may fear You." Granting yirat shamayim is not in the heavenly realm, yet we can ask God to prepare our hearts so that they are fertile ground for it to take root.
Once we have the God-given groundwork, contemplating the greatness of God can be more effective in cultivating the attribute of yirat shamayim.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.