Recently I had the opportunity to study a deep and profound teaching from Rabbi Berezovsky, the last Slonimer Rebbe, who passed away around 18 years ago. In this teaching, the Slonimer focuses on a verse from the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Source of Life require of you, but to fear the Eternal One, to walk in all God's ways, and to love God.’ (Deuteronomy 10:12)
What is this fear that God demands from us? This is difficult for many of us. Many of us don’t relate to a God that demands to be feared. If I want to praise the creative force in the universe that manifests all the diversity, all the beauty and the elegance and even, sadly, all the suffering, do I want to do so from a place of fear?
The Slonimer, though, states that a person cannot be in a state of devekut—‘closeness to the Divine’—without it! For the Slonimer, fear of God comes first. A person’s capacity to love is predicated on it.
Both yirah and pahad are Hebrew words that for ‘fear’. But pahad describes a fear that invokes anxiety and terror, whereas yirah, in addition to fear can also mean awe and wonder. Yirah is used to describe a feeling of wonder and awe that penetrates the very core of our being when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude and mystery of existence.
We have all had these moments. I remember one such experience when travelling in India. I arrived at a little town in the foothills of the Himalayas, late at night. There were no street lamps or lights of any sort. I sat down, in a field, and looked up at the sky, full of stars. And then it happened to me: time stopped; there was no separation between me and all of Creation. I understood intuitively that I was made from the same material as the stars, the sky, the earth under my feet. It was a very deep knowing—of interconnectedness; a kind of breakthrough—an interruption. My concerns, worries, anxieties, all ceased in that moment that felt like eternity. Something very important was gained by that experience and it changed me. It led to the realisation that there is some inexplicable force beyond and within all phenomena—a force that we are all a part of, all connected to.
This is the fear that Hassidic masters refer to as ‘yirat adonai la chayim’—fear that sustains life. This kind of fear is considered to be a very deep form of connection with the Divine. ‘Yirat adonai la chaim”—a sense of fear transformed into awe—is an awakening to the life-force that sustains all of Creation. My whole existence is dependent on this awesome life-force that is constantly creating, renewing, birthing, destroying. What’s more, I will never really comprehend it.
And now, O Israel, what does the Source of Life demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in God's paths, to love God…’ May we all be blessed to cultivate a sense of awe that shakes the very core of our being and inspires a sense of wonder and amazement as we approach these the Days of Awesomeness.
-- Cantor George Mordecai, Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, New South Wales