Fear at Sinai
This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Yisro, depicts the awesome event of the Jews receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. It was a frightening experience, with a lot of drama. There was a great, burning fire, smoke, and extremely loud blasts. The experience was so intense that our Sages tell us (see Rashi 20:14) that the Jews receded a great distance from the mountain out of fright, and required angels to escort them back. What was the point of all this drama? The verse says (20:16, see Ramban and Malbim) that it was in order that the Jews should fear God and not sin. This wasn’t just a byproduct of the occasion, but one of its primary achievements, as the Torah commands us specifically (Devarim 4:9-10) to never forget this experience, in order that we should fear God our entire lives.
One may ask, why is this such an integral component to receiving the Torah? Furthermore, how does this apply to us? If we don’t feel fear naturally, what is there to do about it, and why is it important to make ourselves fearful?
Fear Melts Away Desires
Fearing God is a Mitzvah (Torah commandment), as the Torah says (Devarim 6:13), “You shall fear your God.” The Chofetz Chaim (Biur Halachah, 1:1) says that this Mitzvah applies constantly. How does one perform this Mitzvah? The Chofetz Chaim says that whenever one is tempted to sin, he must arouse himself and think about how God is watching him, no matter where he is, and that he will be punished for any misdeed. Contemplating the fact that one is being watched by God, and that he will suffer consequences for his actions, will prevent a person from making the wrong choices.
With this in mind, we can understand why this was such an important part of receiving the Torah. The Beit Halevi states a remarkable insight: When a person is in a state of fear, all his personal desires will melt away. When a person is tempted to sin, he might feel that his lusts are too powerful to overcome. He feels he simply cannot resist the temptation. Says the Beit Halevi, this is not an excuse. Because as strong as his desires may be, they can only exist as long as he is lacking any fear. If a person would arouse himself to feel fear of Heaven, the strongest desires will evaporate. The power of the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) lies in that he causes a person to forget about fearing God. But with minimal arousal of one’s heart to fear God, the desires a person thought were too overpowering will dissipate. When a person experiences fear of Heaven in his heart, he cannot sin.
Fear of God: The Key to Sustaining Our Commitment
This is why fear of God is crucial to receiving the Torah. Fear of God is the tool which cements our commitment to the Torah. By exercising fear of heaven, one is guaranteed to stay in line and resist the Yetzer Hara, which attempts to veer a person away from following the Torah. This is the foundation for accepting the Torah, in a way which will last forever. It is the key to sustaining the discipline a Jew must have to keep his commitment to Torah perpetually. This mighty experience served to embed in the Jewish consciousness a concrete foundation for fearing God forever. It’s our job to bring it to the forefront of our minds and develop proper fear of Heaven.
The Chofetz Chaim was once riding on a wagon, and the wagon pulled over. The wagon driver noticed some delicious fruit growing in an orchard by the road, and decided to help himself to some fruit. He asked the Chofetz Chaim to be on the lookout and warn him in case the owner would show up. Shortly after the wagon driver entered the orchard, the Chofetz Chaim began shouting, “He’s watching!” The wagon driver dashed back, but he didn’t see anyone in the vicinity. “Why did you tell me that I’m being watched?” he asked the Chofetz Chaim, “I don’t see anyone around.” The Chofetz Chaim pointed upwards and said, “The Boss in Heaven is watching. Isn’t that a reason to stop?”
A Commandment, Not a Choice
This is a mitzvah which many people are not aware of. Fearing God is not just a phenomenon which either happens or not. It is a trait one is commanded to consciously exercise. It is the foundation to achieving greatness in keeping the Torah. When a person is confronted with a moral dilemma, it’s not just a matter of making the right choice or not. A person is required to arouse himself to fight against the temptations of the Yetzer Hara by thinking thoughts of fear of Heaven that will prevent him from making the wrong choices.
This is where the challenge lies. A person should work on a regular basis to picture in his mind the awe-inspiring experience of receiving the Torah, to sear into his mind fear and awe of the Almighty. The more we contemplate and ingrain in ourselves the greatness of God, the fact that He is watching us at all times, and that we will have to face consequences for our actions, the firmer we will be in fulfilling our Torah commitments and making the correct decisions in life.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber email@example.com