(This is another of the series of Mussar workshops I assist with.)
וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹת ה’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם
And you shall look at them (tzitzit) and recall all of God’s mitzvot and do them; and don’t turn away after your heart and after your eyes after which you prostitute yourselves. (Bamidmar 15:39)
All of your men shall be seen…. (Shemot 23:17)
וְלֹא־יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל־גְּבֻלְךָ
And leaven shall not be seen throughout your borders. (Devarim 16:4)
(רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד (אבות ב:ט
Rabbi Shimon say, the one who sees the consequence (Avot 2:9)
(in response to the charge, “Go out and see what is the path that a man should attach himself”)
* * * * *
יראה, Yirah, awe/fear/awareness is based on the three-letter root, ראה, which means to see. When we talk of Yirat HaShem, “fear of God”, we should remind ourselves that we consider this type of fear as positive, which is contrary to our secular understanding of the word (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, FDR’s first innagural address). We’re not talking about the shock/emotional reaction to a frightening scene in a horror movie or even of threats voiced by other people. We also don’t mean to imply that God is some sort of scary monster (a gross misunderstanding of the verse, “No man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20) nor that the primitive Jewish People were frightened of the thunder and lightening at Sinai. The goal of God-fearing is not that we live in paralyzing, quivering terror.
Rather, the key is our quotation from Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) urging us to always examine the consequences of our every act and decision. The certainty that no act goes unaccounted instills in us proper caution, respect and awe of the moral universe created and embodied by God. It inspires us to live at the level of קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי, Be Holy because I am Holy (VaYikra 19:2). Belief in God is more than accepting an anonymous first cause, a Creator who then walked away, but rather God who is always involved.
The mitzva of Tzitzit culminates in looking at the strings. Originally, one of the eight strings at each corner was dyed a special blue to remind us both of the sky/heaven and the Heavenly Throne, pointing us in the direction of actions that create positive effects, using our spiritual eyes. The verse continues to describe the danger inherent in following only the superficial, using only our physical eyes. In other words, acting on the basis of there truly being consequences, i.e. with Yirat HaShem.
Our obligation to attend the Temple services during the שלש רגלים, the three pilgrimage festivals, is presented as the charge to be seen. Interestingly, the Gemara (Chagiga), discussing just who is obligated for this mitzva, excuses the blind because they can’t see. It’s not our mere presence in a physical location at a specified time that’s important, but that we open our eyes to what is really occurring–not merely a party complete with mixed-grill, but the presence of the Shechina, the Divine Presence. We become God-fearing by becoming God-aware!
Proper Yirah also has to do with where we direct our attention/awareness. We gaze at our tzitzit which leads us to the eternal presence of Heaven and of God’s involvement in our lives (the imagery of the Heavenly Throne is that by sitting on it, God descends into our world). Just as we don’t follow our eyes into self-degradation, we don’t focus on our own narcissism, our chametz, so, at least over the Pesach holiday we take a break from living in awe of our own egos.
These mitzvot lead us to look beneath the surface and the immediate into how consequences will unfold. They are designed to have us anticipate those good outcomes and fear the negative ones our actions bring. They direct us to respect and live in awe of the Infinite God and not of any lesser ideal. They train us to (כִּי אִם־עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ (מיכה ו:ח, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).