Fear plays a controversial yet enduring role in our lives. While an Old Norse saying asserts, "Fear profits a man nothing," the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, observed that fear "must keep its watchful place at the heart's controls." The modern philosopher Bertrand Russell counted "those who fear life as three parts dead," while the British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, claimed "fear … makes us feel our humanity." Today, scientists explore how our brains register and respond to fear, a protective emotion that can energize and paralyze as well.
Yitro recounts a momentous event in our history, the Revelation at Mount Sinai. As the portion begins, Moses reunites with his family and gains important tips on governance from his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro. The Torah then details God's instructions through Moses that guide the Hebrews as they ready themselves to receive the Ten Commandments that form the ethical basis of the major Western religions to this day.
Our tradition focuses intently on the events leading up to Sinai, then parses each commandment. Less attention has been paid to the aftermath of God's revelation, which forms the conclusion of our parshah. There, Moses states somewhat paradoxically: "Don't fear, for God has come to elevate you so that the fear of God might be upon your faces that you not sin." To reformulate Hamlet, to fear or not to fear seems to be the question. Was Moses referring to different types of fear in his initial reassurance and later charge? If so, what lessons might such distinctions teach us about godly living?
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lev Alter, in his commentary Sefat Emet, claimed that fear can connote two different stances toward life. One distances us from reality because we perceive the unknown as foreboding. The second inspires us with a sense of reverence for the grandeur of existence and the majestic Source of Life.
Thus, Moses first encourages the people not to draw away from the mystery that is God. He then charges them to live with reverence, to refrain from transgression by following that which God has commanded. As a number of our classical sources state, God formed the world through the Ten Creative Utterances recorded in Genesis I; ours has become the task to ethically sustain that world by observing the Ten Commandments.
Fear can also be understood relationally. Like the vulnerable when faced with superior power, we fear misbehaving, lest we be punished. Yet a more virtuous form is that derived from love.
We often fear offending those we cherish, lest we lose their love. We avoid acts that debase us, lest we appear unworthy in their eyes. In this light, Moses first warned the people that merely fearing punishment is an inadequate response to God's revelation. Instead, we should refrain from sin that our faces might shine with veneration for the One who bound us at Sinai in a covenant of love.
H.L. Mencken described fear of the unknown and inexplicable as debilitating. Perhaps this constituted Moses' initial warning: "Don't fear. The God of Sinai Who brought us out of bondage does not want us to cower before the exigencies and mysteries of life."
However, this does not give us license to act with impunity. Instead, it summons us to reverence for fear of despoiling our relationships with God, the world and ourselves. To quote the biblicist James Hastings, such fear is "the needle that … may carry a thread to bind us to heaven."
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El. E-mail him at: [email protected]