Elul: Time of Fear and Awe – Part 2

We have seen that fear of G-d, yiras Hashem, seems to be a most pervasive and ubiquitous quality throughout Torah. Fear of G-d is what is cited as Avrohom Avinu's salient middah (Bereishis 22:12); fear of Heaven is the level Moshe Rabbeinu extols as the point of the light-and-sound show at Mattan Torah (Shmos 20:16); and, as Chovohs Halevavos states in his Sha'ar Yiras Hashem, the only pathway to achieve higher levels of avodas Hashem is to have a solid grounding in yiras Hashem – an ever-present sense of fear of the Almighty.

Yet we shy away from admitting that our avodah need be fear-based. It certainly seems somewhat unsophisticated and even perhaps emotionally unhealthy to have a relationship based on fear. Yet Chazal – the Torah! – understood the human psyche: to wit, without a backdrop of fear, there will always be a possibility of spurning and ignoring our obligations (see Rav to Avos 1:3).

A shocking insight as to its cogency can be found in Brachos 28B, when Rabbi Eliezer,who was deathly ill at the time, aquiesced to his talmidim's request to bless them, by stating ,"May it be His will that you should develop fear of Heaven, to be commensurate with your fear of people. "The talmidim were surprised "That's all? Just like that? Not more?" To which Rabbi Eliezer replied, "Would that it be so as I have stated! Don't you realize that when a person sins (or does anything inappropriate) he is worried that he not be seen by anyone… yet isn't Hashem always looking ?"

This sentiment and idea is actually codified in the very first siman in Shulchan Aruch in the Rema, where the Rema writes that fulfillment of "I have set Hashem before me always," realizing and visualizing that Hashem is really really watching you , makes one act very differently, and makes one conduct oneself with an ever-present fear and humility.

(A modern-day application of this concept, interestingly enough, is the idea of accountability and transparency for those who "must" use the Internet for business and the like. Not always is our fear of Heaven what it should be, and the pitfalls of the Internet are well-known, pervasive, and numerous. The idea of having a report of all the "places" one has "visited" being sent weekly, or even daily, to a designated "chaver" is becoming popular; there are software programs out there that achieve this in various ways, using various methods. Beis Tefilla Yonah Avraham is in the midst of assembling together a tech-support team to simplify this process for anyone whose circumstances demand Internet usage and access, to enable them to easily hook up with these programs. It is certainly not a substitute for foregoing the "blessings" of the Internet, but it is an interesting manifestation of the Gemarra in Brachos – if your yiras shamayim is lacking, we will bring you a basar vedam (a person, of flesh and blood) for you to be afraid of!

Rav Itzil Peterburger, zt"l, in his sefer Shaarei Ohr, indeed finds it difficult to understand why yiras Hashem is not natural and instinctive to the human being, as other fears are. He points out that even when one manages to be courageous and overcome natural fear, the physiology of fear results in physical manifestations of that fear: quicker heartbeat, trembling, etc. Yet fear of G-d does not seem to be at all natural, not even to a believer! How can that be? What happened to normal human reaction? Rav Itzil answers that we are compelled to say, that in order to enable free-will, Hashem enabled an almost-miraculous phenomenon: people are afraid of all sorts of things; their fear is physically felt,the body responds to fear. And yet fear of Heaven, even merely of ultimately having to answer for one's actions and being punished for them, remains itself a matter of avodah that a person has to work on to develop. An open miracle, says Rav Itzil! (Can this be the source of the condition of cognitive dissonance?)

Mesilas Yesharim speaks of three kinds of yiras Hashem. One is easy to achieve; the second is quite difficult; and the third is even more formidable to realize.

The first is a "simple" fear of punishment – yiras onesh. Violating the will of Hashem carries consequences – sometimes in this world, both on a personal level and on a national one, and sometimes in the next world. This is relatively simple to achieve, and needs merely the capacity of self-interest. Once a person is ready to make himself or herself concious of this reality (and,after all, it is one of the 13 principles of faith – i.e, that Hashem rewards and punishes), the instinct for self-preservation would allow, even demand, that yiras Hashem be attained. This is the focus, according to Chazal, of the second paragraph of krias shema – simple belief in reward-and-punishment. This is level one of yiras Hashem (and lest anyone doubt that this is indeed considered yiras Hashem , see the Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos,where he enumerates the 613 mitzvos and elaborates upon them:

Positive command number 4: that Hashem has commanded us to believe and to fear Him [I assume that the reference to belief is related to the Rambam counting belief in a reward-and-punishment system as a fundamental, essential belief of Judiasm (principle number 11)]; and we must not be like those who ascribe everything to chance; rather,we shall fear His punishment at any moment; and this is a fulfillment of the positive command to fear Hashem.

And so the Rambam makes quite clear that one fulfills the mitzvah of yiras Hashem with this low-level yirah.

The Mesilas Yesharim continues and explains that a more sublime, more transcendent form is what is known as yiras harommemus – something more akin to awe… a complex combination of dread, apprehension, esteem, respect, even reverence and veneration, and embarrasement. That a person refrain from sin out of a sense of respect/dread – how DARE s/he, a puny, small, ineffectual dependent being, violate the will of the All-Mighty, all-seeing, all-knowing G-d!? This fear-of-G-d requires an intellectual bent – where the person has some sort of thoughtful understanding of the essence and being of Hashem, and is overcome with trepidation and even mortification at the thought of contravening Hashem's will. This is yiras Hashem of a more abstract, lofty, nature.

To be continued

I invite everyone to join us at the ulam of BTYA on Wednesday night, the night of 23 Elul, September 1, at 8:30 PM, for a return appearance and PowerPoint lecture by Rav Yechiel Spira, teaching fundamentals of kashrus consumerism – but this time, having made an extensive study of all the food establishments of BS/RBS, he will be using local food purveyors and eateries as his springboard.

Also, we will im yirtzeh Hashem be unveiling the first-time ever RBS/BS Kashrus Report, a must-have guide to Kashrus in our town. See you all there!

Ki Seitzei – Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha

Ki Seitzei Newsletter in PDF format

If a person is in the middle of Elokaiy , netzor…,and he is called up to the Torah , he should say yiheyu l’ratzon (he is now effectively finished his Tefillah) , and can go take the aliyah , read along with the ba’al koreh , return to his place, and then take the three steps back .If there is time , he should take the steps back before going up.

A Shul may be used for tzorchei rabim if there is no other place. There is a principle (which has many applications ) , which states that tzorchei rabim acquires a legal status of a devar mitzvah . Think about that , especially as you read certain signs presently on the Shul bulletin board .

Shofetim – Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha

BTYA Bulletin – Parshas Shofetim

According to the MB (122:5,6), it is better to cut short “elokaiy, netzor leshoni…” or even skip it, and then answer kedusha or kaddish or barchu, rather than to answer in the middle of “elokaiy, netzor,” even though we learned that that  is permissible.

If one already said “yiheyu l’ratzon,” one should take 3 steps back and even try to say “oseh shalom…”
If one did not say “yiheyu l’ratzon” yet, it is better to say it now, and take 3 steps back (and try to say “oseh shalom”)

It is permissible to “use” a Shul for a mitzvah purpose–for example, it would be permissible to have R’ Yechiel Spira’s return kashrus lecture [using local food establishments as examples, taking place September 1 at 8:30 PM] in our Shul (as it is, though, it will iyh be downstairs–since even so, if  possible, it should be avoided).

Financial calculations of a mitzvah (kuppah shel tzadaka) are also permissible, if necessary to do there. Poskim say that if those calculations are for the Shul itself (sweepstakes cheshbonos), it is lechatchilah permissible.

Elul: Time of Fear and Awe

I am writing these lines as the hours dwindle down to the month of Elul. And you are reading them in these first days of that month. Elul is, of course, the traditional preparation time for the upcoming Yomim Nora’im, days of teshuvah and judgment – Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of teshuvah, and of course Yom Kippur.

So, how do you plan to prepare? Or, are you indeed preparing for the preparation? After all, can you expect that when the sun sets, ushering in the first night of Rosh Hashana, that you will just “be there”? We see that Chazal were aware of this difficulty, and declared that a small measure of “awakening” be instituted during Elul – namely, blowing the shofar daily, and saying the 27th chapter in Tehillim twice daily. This, of course, is merely the institutionalized wake-up; surely each person has to make a personal cheshbon hanefesh and have some battle plan for 30 to 40 days hence.

If you are like most people (please forgive me for lumping you, a unique, special, exclusive individual with the insidious grouping called “most people”), you are basically clueless (again, please forgive me). Do you learn mussar – at all? Do you have a plan for self-improvement? After all, one doesn’t change even the most innocuous habit overnight – and we are, for the most part, creatures of habit. How will we have a fighting chance to have a year different from last year, and the year before that, if we basically stay the same?

To suggest in a column of this length a master plan for personal spiritual growth is preposterous. To whittle it down to preparing for the Yomim Nora’im doesn’t really make sense either. However, baruch Hashem, a specific mahalach, an approach, a doable step, a specific middah-which-contains-the-doorway-to-all-others presented itself to me, and that is what I’d like to share with you. One specific area to devote the rest of Elul to working on.

The Gemara in Shabbos (31A) states: Even if one were to be proficient in the entire gamut of Torah Sheb’al Peh (the Oral Law), nevertheless, the most important thing in the eyes of Hashem is whether the person has developed within himself yiras Hashem – fear of Hashem… and after going through a list of questions that a person will be asked after he has completed his life (always a distinct possibility), he will be told: even if you have answered all the questions appropriately, it is only if you have developed fear of Hashem that you are assured of a favorable judgement… The Gemara continues: fear of Hashem is like the preservative which safeguards the wheat – without the preservative, the wheat will spoil quickly, and all of the farmer’s previous work will have been in vain; so, too, without fear of Hashem, one’s actions and Torah knowledge quickly “spoil”, i.e, are not sustainable… fear of Hashem are the keys to allow one to enter the “inner chamber” of service of Hashem… And a last statement in that sugya: “Hashem has created His world for the express purpose in having its population fear Him. ”

There are many other Gemaras in this vein, my friends (see, for example, Brachos 33B). Fear of Hashem is a preservative, a safeguard, a “bottom-line” brake to keep us from pursuing an agenda which may be harmful to our soul. To keep us from relying on questionable “heterim.” To awaken us to think about what we are doing with our lives – for one day we will have to answer for and be judged upon our deeds and fulfillment of our potential (or lack thereof). And there’s no escaping that! Whether we are talking about the major Yom Hadin judging our entire lives, or the “mini” one happening every Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, it is that latent fear that is the catalyst for change.

Let’s examine this a bit further and deeper.

Technically speaking, fear of G-d, to develop it, to acquire it, to feel it, to seek ways that it not dissipate, is a mitzvass assei – a positive mitzvah. We find it in Devarim 6:3; 10:12; and 13:5. But it is more than that – it is actually ubiquitous throughout Torah. How many people remember and realize that the midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, acted as they did and defied Paroh because they feared G-d? (Shmos 1: 17) [Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l suggests that the verb in the possuk is not descriptive praise , but an active verb: the midwives did pe’ulos – actions and activities – to further their yiras Hashem, their fear of Heaven, as their nisayon was overwhelming; and they realized that only through seeking methods to advance and grow and really feel that fear would they be able to hold fast.]

When King Avimelech remonstrates with Avrohom Avinu about hiding the true identity of Sara, Avorohom responds: “But there is there is no fear of G-d in this place, and thus they will kill me in order to take my wife from me!” Wow! Avimelech has just criticized Avrohom Avinu for almost causing their populace to sin – and Avimelech “piously” cries, You have done with me unspeakable acts (in not disclosing Sara’s true identity as Avrohom’s wife). You have violated the civilized norms of our lawful society! Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l points out that Avrohom Avinu’s answer contains a key word, BUT (rak) there is no fear of G-d; BUT, meaning all your norms, civilized laws, and societal mores will fall away; if there is no yiras Hashem, man is capable of anything, will justify anything, will do anything, if he thinks he can get away with it.

Yosef protests to his brothers (before they are aware of his identity), “How can you suspect me of acting improperly; why, I am G-d fearing! ” Yosef is the land’s ruler, capable of doing what he pleases on a whim, yet fear of G-d would surely hold him back. The Giving of the Torah finds Hashem saying to Moshe Rabbeinu that the ultimate purpose of the magnitude of the sights-and-sounds of mattan Torah itself was to cause Bnei Yisroel to develop yiras Hashem! (Shmos 20: 17) The Egyptians in Egypt are described as non-yirei Hashem! (Shemos 9: 30). Yiras shamayim is all-embracing and comprehensive.

OK – what now?

to be continued…

Reiey-Shabbos Bulletin and Tefilla Halacha

Reiey final (PDF Format)

During “Elokai,netzor….”, one may answer as if in the middle of shema or its berachos–answering barchu; kadosh..and baruch (of  kedusha ); amein of hokail hakodosh and of shome’a tefilah; amein, “yehei shemei” and da’amiran b’alma..(in kaddish); the first three words of modim derabbanan; and the three ameins of birkas kohanim.
If possible, yiheyu leratzon…should first be said.

One may not do any work or activity of a secular nature in a Shul or a Beis Medrash. For the purpose of fixing or repairing something of the Shul, it is muttar, though even then it is better, if possible, to do the work outside the Shul.