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Beit Hamidrash

Rav Nachman Lecture #1: Fear of Heaven

By: Rav Itamar Eldar

The first subject that we shall address is the fear of heaven (yirat shamayim). 


R.  Nachman, like other chassidic masters, draws a distinction between the awe of Hashem's exaltedness, which he calls "superior awe" (yir'a elyona), and fear of punishment, which he calls "inferior awe" (yir'a tachtona).  But R. Nachman extends these definitions beyond this distinction:


"'You shall give truth to Yaakov; lovingkindness to Avraham' - The meaning of this is that we see with our senses that as soon as a person wishes to walk in the righteous way, "dinim" (judgments, in the sense of impediments) arise against him.  And we would have thought the opposite (i.e., that Hashem would help him to progress).  But there are two types of fear: the fear of punishment, and the fear (awe) of His exaltedness.  The fear of punishment is called "tzedek" (justice), and awe of His exaltedness is called "emuna" (faith).  For it is because he believes with complete faith that Hashem is the Master and Ruler, the essence and the source of all worlds, that he fears Him.  And it is known that it is only possible to achieve faith through the fear of punishment.  For because he is fearful of punishment, he believes that Hashem is mighty, and has every ability and every power, and thus he achieves a greater (level of) faith.  Thus, as soon as he wishes to walk in the righteous path, he must have the (type of) fear that is called "tzedek." And of tzedek it is written (Tehillim 9), "And He shall judge the world with tzedek" - therefore the "dinim" (judgments) arise against him.  But when he achieves the truth; i.e., the awe that is called faith, then all the judgments are sweetened (ameliorated) at their source.  This is the meaning of, "You shall give truth to Yaakov" - i.e., to the awe, for Yaakov is awe, which we learn from (Mishlei 22): "Because of ("ekev") humility - the fear of Hashem." And then definitely exaltedness "to Avraham," for "Avraham" is "anyone who comes to cleave to the Holy One"; (his name) referring to the words "I shall come to the Great One ("avo ram")." And this is the meaning of what is written (Zohar Balak 198): "And tzedek will be the girdle of his hips, and emuna the girdle of his loins" - tzedek and emuna are one and the same, but until it is joined with emet (truth) it is called tzedek, and after it is joined with emet it is called emuna, and then there is all good and all light" (Likutei Moharan Kama 87). 


   In this teaching, R. Nachman lays down several principles that require further explanation:

  1. One cannot attain faith (emuna) except through fear of punishment.

  2. The dinim - "judgments" - or challenges that are placed before a person who seeks to come close to Hashem are meant to help him attain fear of punishment.

  3. The awe of Hashem's exaltedness is called faith (emuna) in R. Nachman's terminology, and this is the recognition that Hashem is the ultimate Master and Ruler etc.  This represents the "sweetening" of the dinim that came upon the person.

  4. R. Nachman draws a parallel between the concepts of tzedek (justice) and emet (truth) and the two types of awe: truth corresponds to awe of Hashem's exaltedness, while justice corresponds to the fear of Divine punishment.


Essentially, R. Nachman regards fear of punishment as an essential step that may not be omitted, for it is the foundation and basis for one's service of Hashem and awe of His exaltedness.


As proof of this requirement he quotes the Zohar, which teaches that it is truth, joined with justice, that creates faith - but only when it is indeed bound together with justice.


We find further elaboration on the definition of the two types of awe elsewhere:


"And there are two types of fear: there are some people who fear Hashem for His greatness and exaltedness, because He is the Master and Ruler; and there is a type of fear that is lower than this, i.e., when a person attains awe through lesser fears - (for instance) through fear of a beast or a ruler or some other fear - and thereby he is reminded of and achieves fear of Hashem. The first type of fear that is (attained) through the intellect meditating on His greatness and exaltedness corresponds to the letter "aleph," for awe is related to kingship, as it is written (Avot chapter 3): "Were it not for the fear of kingship…." But it also corresponds to the letter "dalet," for it hasn't ("d'let") anything of its own.  For it is impossible to achieve awe other than through the meditation of the intellect on His greatness, and the intellect is called "yud." As Rashi comments on the pasuk, "Then Moshe sang… (az yashir Moshe)" - the text should read, "az shar Moshe" (in the past perfect tense, instead of the future tense), but the "yud" was added to indicate the thought (that gave rise to the action).  And the continuation from the intellect to awe (of Hashem) is related to the "vav." And this is the aleph.  (The letter "aleph" consists of a "yud," "vav" and "dalet.")  The second type of fear comes through lesser things; this corresponds to Aleph-Dalet.  For it is related to "dalei dalut" (very impoverished), which is not drawn from the intellect, but rather from lesser things. 

"The only thing drawn as a result of this fear is an influx of bounty into the world.  For this corresponds to the elevation of feminine waters.  It is like one who needs something from a friend and asks him for it.  Through the request he achieves the thing [he wants] from him.  This is because by [expressing] his words and request - his humbling himself before his friend and requesting of him - these words become an aspect of feminine waters.  They make the request have an affect on his friend so that he provides him with what he needs.

"So, too, when he elevates fear from the lower things.  From this, an aspect of elevating feminine waters is created, and an influx of bounty is drawn into the world."  (Likutei Moharan Kama 185)


Awe of Hashem's exaltedness, as described by R. Nachman in the above excerpt, is a recognition that comes as a result of intellectual meditation.  It is a kind of insight that a person achieves through study of the Creator and His greatness.


Fear of punishment, on the other hand, is fear that comes to a person as a result of the encounter with his tangible environment - and especially with the more shady aspects of that reality.


Attention should be paid to the fact that the distinction that is usually drawn between awe of Hashem's greatness and fear of His punishment is the difference between respect and fright.  R. Nachman focuses on a different distinction, on the source of these two types of fear.


Intellectual recognition is essentially disconnected from the empirical encounter with reality.  It is a "laboratorial" process in which a person undertakes a logical process, from which he reaches conclusions that have ramifications for the existential experience of fear.  In R. Nachman's words, "the progression from the intellect to fear." This is a movement from the top downwards; from recognition to experience.


In the case of the inferior (or 'lesser') fear, in contrast, the process begins in experience.  A person is faced with some mortal danger, and this experience brings him to the recognition of fear of punishment.  In R. Nachman's words, "thereby he is reminded of, and brought to, fear of Hashem." For this reason, R. Nachman does not speak here of the "hashpa'ah" (the flowing of Divine influence) - or, at least, this is not his focus.  Rather, he speaks of a rising up from below: "That which is elevated by the fear of lesser things." The fear of punishment grows out of man's encounter with reality.  Furthermore, it harnesses this encounter with the lesser reality to that which is holy, to Divine service, and thereby it has the power not only to influence the world - like the superior awe - but also to elevate from within itself that which it contains.


To clarify this matter further, let us compare this teaching with similar words that were written during more or less the same era by R. Sheur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Habad movement, in his work, the Tanya:


"For when the intellect that is within the thinking soul contemplates and meditates deeply upon the greatness of Hashem - how He fills all the universe and operates all the universe, and everything before Him is like naught - then the attribute of awe of His exaltedness is born and arises in his mind and his thoughts, to fear and to be ashamed before the greatness of Hashem, which is infinite and has no end, and the fear of Hashem is in his heart." (Tanya, chapter 3)


This fear - the awe of Hashem's greatness - is the superior fear, as in R. Nachman's teachings:


"For one whose da'at (knowledge) is capable of knowing Hashem and to contemplate His greatness, and to give rise from his understanding to the superior awe in his mind, and the love of Hashem in the right chamber of his heart, so that his soul thirsts for Hashem, to cleave to Him...." (Tanya, chapter 38) 


In contrast, the Ba'al HaTanya relates to the lesser fear as follows:


"The inferior fear is the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, and the fear of Hashem similar to the fear of a (mortal) king, for this is an external and revealed fear, while the superior awe is a fear that is shame from the "hidden things of Hashem our God," and this is - in the superior wisdom - the "yud" in Hashem's name of "havaya"  (the Tetragrammaton).


The Ba'al HaTanya insists that there can be no drawing closer to Hashem without one of these types of fear - either the inferior or the superior (chapter 41).  Obviously, the awe of Hashem's greatness is the preferable path, and this exists naturally in a person's mind; one has only to reveal it.  But if he is unsuccessful, then even the lesser type of fear is still regarded as fear of Heaven.


There are a number of differences between the Ba'al HaTanya and R. Nachman with regard to the distinction between these two types of fear.  We shall focus on just one of them: the extent to which the lesser form of fear is inherently desirable.


While the Ba'al HaTanya presents this lesser fear as a sort of "default," R. Nachman presents it in a more positive and preferable light:


"And he [R. Nachman] taught: Happy is he who knows nothing of their writings, but rather walks wholeheartedly and has fear of punishment, for the crux of one's Divine service at first is only out of fear of punishment, and without this fear of punishment it is impossible to make any start at all in one's service of Hashem.  And even the righteous (tzaddikim) likewise need fear, for those who serve (Him) out of love are very, very few in number; the main thing is fear of punishment.  For the superior fear that comes from Hashem being the Master and Ruler etc. - i.e., the awe of His greatness - not every person merits this type of fear.  But the main part of one's service, for most people, is only through fear of punishment…" (Sichot HaRan 5).


Although even R. Nachman himself expresses reservations in this regard - "for the crux of one's Divine service AT FIRST...," "for those who serve (Him) out of love are very, very few in number" - a review of the other excerpts quoted shows that the undertone of "bediavad" (a less-preferable concession) is minimal, and that to R. Nachman's view the most important element in one's Divine service is truly the fear of punishment.


It seems to me that the reasons for R. Nachman's preference for fear of punishment over the awe of Hashem's greatness arise from a more profound understanding of the basic assumptions underlying the latter.  In experiencing awe of Hashem, a person attempts to rise beyond the emotional dimension and to contemplate reality in a "sterile," rational way.  A person involved in this process seeks the truth, and to R. Nachman's view the quest for truth has several problematic characteristics:


As stated, the achievement of awe of Hashem's greatness involves a transition from the emotional level to the rational one.  A person attempts to neutralize his emotions and experiences in order to attain logical definition and understanding, which will subsequently influence the person and his emotions.  This is something that R. Nachman cannot accept - even if the results are positive.  In a different sicha (217) R. Nachman explains the command, "And you shall know this day and bring back into your hearts" as guiding a person in the direction of a consciousness of Hashem, rather than towards efforts to investigate, understand or know.  He leads a person in the paths of simple faith with no trace of analysis or logic.  R. Nachman's great reservation with regard to logic may be understood from the continuation of the sicha quoted above:


"And someone who studies, Heaven forbid, from the books of analysis and philosophers - doubts and heresy enter his heart.  For every person is born with evil, for the nature of every person is drawn after evil; i.e., after the evil desires for this world, Heaven forfend.  It is only by means of fear of punishment that he breaks his desire and enters the ways of Hashem.  But when he studies those books of enquiry, Heaven forbid, then he discovers doubts and heresies that support his own natural evil.  And therefore there is no possibility of a person becoming upright and God-fearing through the books of analysis, even though among their words there may be some fragments of positive traits and the like, for nevertheless it is all vanity, for the loss that they entail is greater than their gain." (sicha 5)


This seems to be more than a simple calculation of profit vs. risk.  This is a most fundamental perception of the human soul.  A person exists within a material reality.  Desires are hidden within him, and obstacles abound.  In order to break through the chains surrounding him, a person has to resort to strong measures - in R. Nachman's terminology, to "break the desire...." Rationalist endeavor is characterized by complexity, at times also alienation, and above all by a lengthy procedure with ups and downs.  The outer shell of materialism that distances a person from Hashem can only be burst through unequivocal action; a sudden break out of the 49 gates of impurity that casts him all at once outside of its chains.


Let us remember for a moment the source of the fear of punishment as opposed to the awe of Hashem's greatness.  The fear of sin, as we have mentioned, grows out of the material reality in which a person finds himself.  But all at once it may become a source of power that is directed towards the Holy One.


The attitude towards fear illustrates quite clearly the difference between the two types of awe.  A material person, living within the world, is a fearful person.  He fears wild animals, enemies, illness and all kinds of frightening phenomena.  On the level of awe of Hashem's greatness, a person is required to ignore this fear.  In order to focus on the exaltedness of the Creator, a person has to cut himself off from reality; to leave the frightening world outside and to enter the warm confines of the study hall, to think.  In "fear of punishment" the person remains in the world outside, and even continues to fear - but this fear all at once becomes directed towards the Holy One.  To R. Nachman's view, only such an action has the power to sever and break the material chains that surround him.


In this regard, attention should be paid to an additional point that arises from R. Nachman's treatment of the subject elsewhere:


"When a person walks simple-heartedly in faith alone, without any analysis, he may merit for Hashem to help him to come to the level of "will" (ratzon), which is above that of wisdom (chokhma).  For in truth the wisdom of holiness is above faith, but nevertheless we are not to walk in [the ways of] wisdoms and analyses, but rather in faith alone, for faith is something very strong, and when a person walks in faith alone without analyses and wisdoms then he merits to reach the level of "will," which is above even [the level] of wisdom.  In other words, he merits to have an outstandingly strong will towards the Holy One, with a very intensive longing, to the point where he does not know what to do for the greatness of his longing." (sicha 32)


In order to understand the significance of this teaching, let us return for a moment to the Tanya.


The Ba'al HaTanya maintains that the awe of Hashem's greatness is attained by means of the intellectual process that the person undergoes; a process that corresponds - from the perspective of the kabbalistic model of "sefirot" (Divine emanations) - to Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge (Chokhma, Bina, Da'at).  These sefirot (ChaBaD) are related to the rational process that a person undergoes, consolidating in his mind the concept of Hashem that brings him to awe of Hashem's greatness.


The branches of this recognition are the middot (attributes) that are found in the sefirot - Lovingkindness (Chesed), Valor (Gevura) etc. - with the sefira of Da'at (Knowledge) serving as the connection between the recognition and the middot.


The following is a graphic representation of the model of the sefirot:




   Chokhma              Bina


     Chesed               Gevura


     Netzach              Hod 





The Ba'al HaTanya, in his discussion, ignores the sefira of Keter, which is identified with "will" (ratzon) - i.e., the most primal stage of the coming into being of reality as a whole, as well as any idea that a person thinks.


Thus according to the theory of the Ba'al HaTanya, the process is as follows:


Stage 1: Intellectual recognition, which brings one to awe of Hashem's greatness (ChaBaD - i.e., Chokhma, Bina, Da'at).

Stage 2: The lower middot of love and fear (Chesed, Gevura, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod).


Now let us return to R. Nachman's model:


Stage 1: the lower (inferior) fear

Stage 2: the will - skipping the stage of chokhma (wisdom)


If we were to translate R. Nachman's thesis into the language of the Ba'al HaTanya and the model that he presents, then man, according to R. Nachman, actually starts below, in the middot, and thereby merits to jump above the level of chokhma to attain the level that is even higher than chokhma - that of ratzon, i.e., the sefira of Keter, which is infinite longing for Hashem.


This sharp difference can be understood against the background of what we have said above.  To R. Nachman's view, the climax of the encounter with the Creator occurs not in knowledge - da'at (as the Ba'al HaTanya maintains) but rather in the longing itself.  The actual knowledge is a means on the path to the attainment of this longing, but this tool - as we have seen above - entails certain problems.  These problems are so acute that they may even prevent one from reaching his aim.  The leap above da'at can bring a person to a position so high that it is above even the awe of Hashem's greatness.  In the awe of His greatness there is still a clear separation between the awe and the lofty Object, but in longing and cleaving this separation becomes increasingly blurred.  The crossing over this gaping abyss is possible only by means of a leap.  The bridge of da'at, according to R. Nachman, will never (or almost never) succeed in bridging the gap completely.  Therefore one has to leap above it.


Another distinction between the Ba'al HaTanya and R. Nachman may go a long way towards explaining the difference between them:


The Ba'al HaTanya describes the process that a person undergoes as one of "exposure." The "upper" and "lower" types of fear and love already exist within the souls.  The person actually exposes himself, allowing the influence to occur.  Therefore the influence is from the top downwards - from the emanation of the sefirot of ChaBaD (Chokhma, Bina, Da'at) to malkhut - to man.


R. Nachman starts with the will of a person who is far from Hashem to come closer to Him.  This is a process not of exposure but rather of approaching, of a journey towards Hashem.  Therefore, first and foremost, it is a process that occurs from below upwards, from the middot to the will.  But therefore there must also be a leap, for the distance between the Holy One and man is infinite, while if we speak of exposure to the Divine influence (as in the Tanya), the central principle is the gradual step-by-step motion.


We mentioned previously a man's quest for truth.  We pointed out that the first characteristic of this mission is the transition from sensory experience to intellectual knowledge - a problematic transition, in R. Nachman's view.  But this quest is also characterized by pretension.  A person who is distant from Hashem reflects, to a considerable degree, a situation that is both natural and normal.  The distance between man and God is indeed infinite.


The first ramification of this distance pertains to the very ability of da'at to sever one from his material reality, but the second ramification relates to man's pretentiousness in ignoring his material status and seeking closeness to God.  R. Nachman states, based on his own experience, that a person who seeks to come close to Hashem encounters many difficulties, whose spiritual significance is the arousal of supernal "dinim" ("judgments") and "gevurot" upon the person.  This idea is also stated elsewhere:


"'And the nation stood at a distance and Moshe approached the cloud where God was' - For if someone walks in materialism all his life, and thereafter is inspired and wishes to walk in the ways of Hashem, then "middat ha-din" (the "attribute of judgment") prosecutes him, and will not leave him to walk in Hashem's ways, and it brings obstacles for him." (Likutei Moharan Kama 115)


R. Nachman emphasizes the pretentiousness in the will of a person who is steeped in materialism all his life, to seek closeness to God.  The obstacles, as we saw in the first teaching above, are meant to awaken in man the fear of punishment.  In this sense the function of the fear of punishment is not only to break the desires, as we saw above, but also to remind man of his place.  Fear of punishment is essential not only in order to allow man to elevate himself beyond his bodily status, but also as a function of the absurdity that arises from his very desire to elevate himself.  The sweetening of the judgment - i.e., the coming closer despite the "lack of justice" (lack of worthiness) that it entails, is facilitated only as a second stage.  Tzedek (justice) here is the din (judgment), and when a person stands before tzedek he is filled with perfect fear.  From the point of view of Divine tzedek, the person's wish to come close to Hashem requires that he be met, heaven forbid, with a "garden that is closed and a spring that is blocked." This necessarily gives rise to the perfect fear of punishment.  Awe of Hashem's greatness actually already contains within it the first stage as well as the recognition that God is truly elevated, but nevertheless I desire His closeness. Truth contains within it both tzedek - strict justice - and compromise with it - and this is awe.  Man can attain awe only after he understands, experiences and is almost struck dumb within the Divine justice which cannot accept the approach of material man towards God - a dumbness which R. Nachman calls "the fear of punishment."


(Translated by Kaeren Fish)