“The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge…” (Proverbs 1:7)
The idea of “fearing God” carries with it overtones of fire and brimstone, a puritanical flavor that seems foreign to our 21st century mentality. With humanity (especially Western society) feeling secure in its understanding of the universe, most people no longer fear the so-called “wrath of God.”
The Jewish concept of “Yirat Hashem,” Fear of God, is not meant to serve as a threat to force people to obey the Torah. If that were the case, Reish Lakish, a third century sage, would not refer to it as a “treasure” (Shabbat 31a). Serving God out of fear of punishment or fear of losing one’s reward is actually a rather primitive form of devotion (although valid). This fundamental type of fear of God, cannot explain why in Judaism fear of God is often viewed as a path to knowledge.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:11), “Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said, “Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure.” This sage advice implies that seeking knowledge should be the direct result of Yirat Hashem. Knowing, seeing and recognizing God’s infinite power should drive a person to want to better understand God. Each new discovery (each new revelation of the Creator’s magnificence) should encourage each person to desire to know more, while, at the same time, recognizing just how all encompassing God is.
It could be said that this was what Moses meant when he told the Israelites that all God wants of them is “merely to fear God you 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).
Learning to sincerely fear God is not easy, but it is attainable. As the sages say: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b).
Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.