Fear and Blessing
Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )
Now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 10:12)
Rabbi Chanina said: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven other than the fear of Heaven, as it is written, Now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, ask of you? Only to fear the Lord, your God. Are we to understand from the way Moses relayed this request of God that developing a fear of God is no great matter? Yes, the truth is that to Moses, the fear of God was no great matter. In metaphoric terms, to Moses, requesting someone to fear God can be compared to asking someone who has a large vessel to donate it -- to him it seems like a small matter. But for someone who is asked to donate a small vessel and does not have it -- to him the identical request looms enormous. (Talmud, Megilah, 25a)
But this Talmudic comment does not really resolve the difficulty in understanding the passage. If indeed the fear of Heaven is beyond God's power to instill, then it follows that all Jews must develop this fear individually, unaided. Surely then, Moses, as the experienced leader of his people, speaking here at the end of his forty-year reign, was perfectly aware that he was indeed making an enormous request of the average person.
What if, on his own lofty spiritual height, the fear of God seems like a trivial matter. He isn't speaking to himself -- he is addressing the Jewish people for whom it is a very great matter indeed. In fact, the passage from the Talmud implies that it was totally beyond them! So why does Moses belittle the difficulty of developing a fear of God? Moreover, why does the Talmud compare the quest of the fear of God to the request for a donation of a vessel? In what way is the fear of God comparable to a vessel? What is the significance of this metaphor?
"NEAR TO YOU"
The comment Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi offers in the Tanya (to answer a similar difficulty) helps to shed light on our problem:
The Torah states that knowledge and observance of the Torah are not remote matters; they are not up in the heavens or beyond the oceans. Rather, the matter is very near to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- to perform it (Deut. 30:14)
Every Jew has an innate fear and love of God.
Explains the Tanya: Every Jew has an innate fear and love of God that is a legacy provided by the patriarchs to all their offspring. As these feelings are an intrinsic part of the Jewish personality, every Jew can access them whenever he desires, by merely expressing them in prayer and Torah study. As the fear and love are innate, their expression is always an expression of the inner Jewish reality.
Applying this to our passage:
Moses, who knew this clearly, was able to state truly that for a Jew, developing a fear of God is no great matter. However, the metaphor of the Talmud is also accurate. The inherited fear of God is a real phenomenon but it is subconscious. It takes conscious effort to make the human heart burst into flame with this fear, and whoever has not made the effort, does not possess this fear as a part of his conscious makeup.
Indeed, it is perfectly possible for a Jew not to have the fear of God as part of his conscious makeup. Nevertheless, developing a fear of God does not involve the creation of a non-existent emotion or belief but is more akin to blowing on a glowing ember to make it burst into flame.
The same idea can also be applied to explain the comparison of the fear of God to a vessel. The subconscious fear of God that is an inherent part of every Jew does not automatically enable the human heart to be a vessel that serves as a container of Torah. To be able to feel a commitment to the observance of the commandments, a Jew must first make the fear in his heart burst into flame.
The subconscious sends us powerful messages and is the root of basic human desires and ambitions. But the surface events of our lives -- and more specifically, the decisions we make in response to changing circumstances -- are all conducted on the conscious level. The conscious heart is the portion of the personality that functions in the venue in which the changing events of our lives occur, and it is only the fear of God in the conscious heart that can induce a response that is meaningful and significant.
In fact, it turns out that the fear of God in a Jew resembles an innate "talent" more than it does an emotion that is the outcome of belief. Like talent, it is inborn. Like talent, if it is never developed, it just sits there unexploited and unexpressed. Like talent it provides the basic focus of the creative life of its possessor. After the basic necessities of life are taken care of, a human being cultivates his talents and abilities.
Understood on a deeper level, Moses' message amounts to the following:
In a created, God-managed universe, the tone of life is set by God's expectations. If, in fact, God's sole expectation of man is the development of the fear of God, then the cultivation of this capacity in the human soul necessarily forms the background of meaningful existence. Jews will never be satisfied with a life that is centered around any other idea, just as people born with innate talents will never be truly satisfied by any sort of life that is not centered around its development and cultivation.
According to rabbinic wisdom, this fear comes in two forms:
Rabbi Yitzchak bar Elazar taught: "The attribute that is the crown that wisdom wears on its head, is the attribute that humility uses as the sole of its shoes as it is written, the beginning [the word in the verse is reishis, meaning both 'beginning' and 'head' in Hebrew] of wisdom [i.e. its crown] is fear of God (Psalms 111:10), and it is also written, the result (the Hebrew word is ekev, also meaning 'heel' or 'sole') of humility is fear of God (Proverbs 22:4)(Yerushalmi, Shabos, 1,3)
The transposition of the fear of God from the crown of wisdom to the soles on the shoes of humility is the transformation of the subconscious inborn fear of God, to the conscious flame in the human heart.
For Moses, who is described as "exceedingly humble" (Numbers 12:3), the fear of God is a great vessel but only a small matter, like the soles on one's shoe. For the person who has yet to set out on the creative journey of transforming his subconscious fear into a burning flame in his heart, it is as yet only a small vessel, and it is the crowning achievement of his wisdom to actualize it.
The selection of the concepts of wisdom and humility to describe the process of development of the fear of God in the Jewish heart is very deliberate. Man is born into a universe that he appears to dominate by means of his superior intelligence. By employing this intelligence to study that world, he is able to deduce the existence of an intelligence superior to his own and obtain his first glimpse of God. The word "fear" in Hebrew is yirah, which shares a root with the verb "to see."
In this world, man has no reason to feel humility.
The world into which man is born is a world in which the human being is the master of all that he surveys. In this world, man has no reason to feel humility. Existence centers around him and his needs. When he employs his intelligence properly and reaches a vision of God, he is introduced into a new God-centered universe where humility comes naturally to him.
The development of the fear of God thus elevates man into a new sphere of existence, where his acquired wisdom bequeaths him the gift of humility. Whereas the vision of God is the very pinnacle of perception in the world into which man is born, in the new world which becomes visible to him through this perception, it represents the very basis of reality. In a God-centered world, the vision and fear of God is the very ground on which he treads.
Does the Torah offer man a method to help him to accomplish this transformation?
THE COMMANDMENT OF BLESSING
One of the commandments in our Parshat Ekev is the commandment to recite Birkat HaMazon, the blessing we recite after meals. This Torah commandment was expanded by the rabbis to include the need to bless God prior to the partaking of any food. The principle of reciting these blessings is expressed in the following passage:
It is forbidden to partake of any worldly pleasure prior to the offering of a blessing; and whoever indulges himself without first uttering a blessing is comparable to one who profanes a holy object. What is the remedy for one who has committed the violation of indulging himself without having uttered a blessing? He should go to the wise man who will teach him the laws of blessings. But what good will that do as he has already committed the violation? Rava explained: "He should go to the wise man now, so that he will not come to violate this injunction in the first place..."
Rabbi Levi pointed out an apparent contradiction: "On the one hand it is written, the world and all that it contains belongs to God (Psalms 24) and on the other hand it says, the heavens -- the heavens belong to God, but He gave the earth to man (Psalms 115) the contradiction is only apparent not real. The first verse which describes the entire world as God's property, describes the situation prior to making a blessing, whereas the second verse, where the earth is described as the property of man, refers to the situation following a blessing."
Rabbi Chanina bar Papa taught: "Whoever takes enjoyment from the world without first making a blessing is considered to be stealing it from God and the congregation of Israel, as it is written: he who steals from his mother and father and declares that there is no crime is the colleague of the destructive person (Proverbs 28). His father is God ... and his mother is the congregation of Israel ... the colleague of the destroyer refers to Jeroboam ben Nevot..." (Talmud, Brochot, 35a-b)
To understand the ideas being taught to us here we need to burrow deeper into the meaning of the fear of God.
RATIONAL BASIS FOR BLESSINGS
Even if we believe in a created universe, and even if we accept the fact that God still retains His interest and influence over events in His universe, this still does not serve as a rational basis for creating an obligation to make a blessing to God prior to taking enjoyment from the universe. After all, such enjoyment comes from God only indirectly. He created the universe, and the universe produced whatever it is that the human consumer happens to be enjoying. The pleasure that is derived at the moment of consumption does not connect directly with the Creator. He may be the first cause, but He is not the direct supplier. It may be polite to offer thanks, but the omission could certainly not be described as theft.
The principle involved in making blessings as the passage of the Talmud indicates is that right now, as I am eating the bread, I am accepting it directly from God's hands. The inputs of life come to me directly from God. Creation is not an event that was completed roughly 15 billion years ago at the time of the Big Bang, but is an eternal ongoing process that I come into contact with every time I take something that I need from God's world.
There is something very unusual about Judaism when it comes to blessings and prayers that people have trouble relating to. We recite blessings not as a spontaneous outpouring of our heartfelt gratitude to the Creator but as the fulfillment of a commandment. In effect, God orders us to recite a blessing before we partake of His world. In the imagery of the Talmud, He is only willing to give us the world following a blessing. Thus the blessing is more of an exchange than an act of gratitude. We offer God the blessing and in return He gives us the world. But why does God attach such a strange condition to His gift? What need does He have of our blessing?
To understand the answer to this we must appreciate the true significance of commandments.
HOW COMMANDMENTS WORK
The commandments of the Torah really work. They alter the universe and actualize the realities that they represent. If God commands the recital of a blessing, based on the idea that we are taking the enjoyment upon which we utter the blessing straight from His hands, then it is the blessing that makes it so.
When we utter the blessing we derive the enjoyment from God. When we do not utter it, we do not. Then the food only comes from God indirectly as reason would suggest at first glance.
Spiritual and physical realities coexist in the identical space.
Spiritual and physical realities coexist in the identical space. To access spiritual reality in real time always requires God's direct intervention. He guarantees this intervention through the performance of spiritual acts that He commands us to perform. Having commanded them, He has placed Himself under an obligation to make them work when they are faithfully carried out.
The passage in the Talmud regarding blessings takes us through three distinct stages. In the first stage, taking enjoyment without first uttering a blessing is compared to profaning something holy. This can be avoided, explains the Talmud, by consulting the wise man about the rules of blessings. Consulting the wise man parallels the idea of the fear of God being the crowning achievement of human wisdom.
In the final stage, the failure to recite the blessing is compared to stealing from one's parents. The commentators explain that what is being stolen is the ability to provide. God can provide for His children only in a world where every enjoyment comes directly from Him in real time.
When a Jew utters a blessing he creates the necessary connection between the congregation, (which is his mother) and God, (his father) so that they can join their forces and together provide for his needs.
The failure to say the blessings is equivalent to the destruction of the connection between the physical and the spiritual, an action whose most infamous perpetrator was Jeroboam ben Nevot, the king who prevented Jews from making the pilgrimage to the Temple and severed their connection to God.
The third stage mentioned by the Talmud -- the transition from God's world to man's -- is accomplished by the uttering of the blessing. God's world is always fully stocked and running over with plenty. When this world becomes man's, it comes to him automatically fully supplied with everything he may possibly require.
Accessing the innate fear of God in the Jewish heart and igniting it into the intense flame is parallel to leaving man's world and entering God's. The vehicle that was designed to transport man on this journey was the vehicle of blessing.