Why It’s Easy to Fear Hashem; And Why It’s Hard

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 10 Part 2

Fear of God, Devarim 10:12 implies, is simple. Forget that we find it hard. Ran adduces verses (such as Bereshit 8:21, כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from its youth) and Talmudic texts (such as Kiddushin 30b, that a person’s baser inclinations renew themselves daily) to show that we gravitate to sin.

Prior essays in this series

Since what is natural is easier and more common, Moshe’s supposedly simple ideal is, by the Torah’s own testimony, actually a rarity. How could he pretend otherwise?

Berachot 33b answers—to Ran’s dissatisfaction—that to someone who has an item, securing it no longer seems like a challenge. Ran rejects the possibility that Moshe could be so blind to his spiritual superiority as to speak to the people as if they were on his level. It would be as if Warren Buffett said, how hard is it to make a billion dollars?

Ran thinks Devarim 11, where Moshe Rabbenu stresses that he is making this covenant with that generation, who saw all of Hashem’s wonders, including the punishments Hashem administered to them, complicates the issue. What was so important about having witnessed wonders and punishments?

Among those punishments, he refers to the deaths of Datan and Aviram, which ignores Korach, who led that rebellion. Why focus on the underlings rather than the leader?

The Right Kind of Fear

We might suggest that Moshe reminds us of punishments as a way to instill fear, except that Ran sees that kind of fear as inferior. He thinks that Moshe here was urging us to achieve the awe that comes from recognizing Hashem’s greatness. That’s an awe not easily achieved. One who has achieved it should rejoice, should know that it’s that kind of fear that leads to walking in Hashem’s ways and loving Him.

The path to that awe, Ran assumes, is by focusing on Hashem’s wonders. Examples include the Giving of the Torah, the pillar of cloud and fire that accompanied the Jews in the desert, the kinds of favors Hashem does that lead us to love Hashem, to want to be closer to Him.

But if the point of the bad times wasn’t to scare us into submission, why mention them?

Well-Considered vs. Sensory

The first part of Ran’s answer is that every human power or ability wants to express itself fully. The sense of taste, for example, wants the tastiest foods in the tastiest possible way. Our more thoughtful or well-considered side, that which separates us from the animals, wants its best expression. (Ran uses the word שכלי, which translates as intellectual, but that’s not quite what he means, as we’ll see, so I’ve chosen a different word to avoid confusion).

Anyone who develops his or her thoughtful side and who takes a well-considered approach to life, will perfect his or her character and all other parts of him or herself as much as possible (careful thought makes clear that bad character hinders our success). Such a person will gravitate towards acquiring as much knowledge of Hashem as possible, want to fulfill His commandments as much as possible, since Hashem is perfect.

Ran’s assumptions contrast starkly with our times, when many of the most intellectual—and, seemingly, thoughtful– among us quickly dismiss religion as primitive or worse. My guess and experience is that this uncovers a flaw in their thought processes, that they mask insecurity in claims of intellectual rigor. Unwilling to confront that which they cannot understand, control, or prove, they deny that any such areas or beings exist, rejecting as impossible anything beyond their ken. Ran is saying, I think, that truly thoughtful people run to fulfill the will of a perfect God, the laws of a perfect Lawgiver.

For Ran, this side we all have makes it easy to achieve fear of Hashem. “All” Hashem asks is for us to follow our internal inclinations, to go where our thoughtful side wants.

The Short-Term and Its Pulls

The fly in the ointment is what Ran calls דמיון, most easily translated as imagination. In this context, I think a better translation is the sensory and ephemeral. I say this because he focuses on our appetites (which are connected to our imaginations) and desires, the way in which we are similar to the animals.

This side of us looks only at what is tangible (an insight into how we fall into sin, that we focus on what’s right there in front of us). Since we have these inclinations from birth (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 16:2 says that a person’s good inclination only comes with adulthood, 12-13 years after the evil inclination, which comes at birth), we have a hard time resisting it.

For Ran, a prime difficulty in giving vent to our well-considered side is that we yield to the encumbrances of our appetites, our enjoyment of the physical. Our strongest human power, our intellect, pushes us in exactly the right direction, if only we let it.

A teacher of mine once defined genius as saying something that none of us would have said on our own, but seems blindingly obvious once it’s said. Ran here has articulated a way to evaluate our choices that seems blindingly obvious, once it’s said. And yet I have found many people who resist or reject it, who demand the right to indulge their sensory sides not because their well-considered side says it’s a good idea (such as buying nice new clothing or having wine or meat to enhance our joy on Yom Tov), but just because.

Next time, we will see Ran’s surprising take on how Hashem helps us let that better side take over.

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