By Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

Guest Column

Do you fear G-d? Are there times when you do the right thing just because G-d may be watching? It’s easy to understand and respect those who love G-d because of all the blessings life has showered on them. But it’s hard, with our modern sensibilities of liberalism and pluralism, to understand those who fear G-d.

Rabbi Kunis

Compounding this difficulty are those who do terrible things because they say they fear their G-d. The massacre of 12 in Paris atthe offices of Charlie Hebdo is a case in point. Why were they killed? Because the perpetrators say they feared Allah, who taught them to forbid any pictures of their prophet Mohammad, which Charlie Hebdo had published. The killers were killed in a shootout while a compatriot killed four and took hostages at a kosher supermarket. Can you imagine the fear of the Jewish community in Paris as only a few hours before Shabbos Jews were taken hostage and killed?

The problem was that these killers thought they feared their G-d, but in reality their actions were motivated by hatred. No G-d would look kindly on the taking of lives because of a cartoon, no matter how offensive. Perhaps what is needed in the world is a genuine fear of G-d — a fear that we will face severe consequences if we don’t act kindly, compassionately and lovingly to our fellow man.

There’s a fascinating parallel between the end of the Book of Genesis and the beginning of the Book of Exodus. Genesis deals with creation — the creation of the universe and the creation of a family. It seems that it was far more difficult for the patriarchs and matriarchs to forge a family than it was for G-d to forge the world. Exodus takes the next step. It deals with the creation of a nation formed from that family — the family of Abraham.

Fear of G-d is a theme in both books. Pharaoh is anxious to destroy the Jewish nation, so he introduces his version of the “final solution”: All Jewish males are to be killed at birth, cast into the Nile. He enlists the Jewish midwives Shifra and Pua to do his dirty work. But “the midwives feared G-d and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” The midwives acted compassionately because they feared G-d. This is what it means to fear G-d — to act with compassion and kindness.

A few chapters before the story of the midwives, Joseph, in resisting the seduction of his master Potiphar’s wife, tells her: “Behold my master … has put all that he has into my hand … neither has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How can I then do this great evil?” Had he ended his plea with this, it would have been sufficient. But Joseph adds a telling phrase: “How can I do this great evil and sin against G-d.” Joseph describes himself first and foremost as “one who fears G-d.”

But what is fear of G-d? Is it just doing the right thing because you fear G-d will punish you if you don’t? Few people live their lives today with concern for punishment in an afterlife, and even fewer fear being struck down by lightning upon committing a transgression. So what constitutes fear of G-d?

I’d like to point out a unique aspect of fear. The human nervous system apparently chooses what to fear at any moment. The Midrash demonstrates this with the example of a person known to fear dogs running smack into a pack of dogs. His friend confronts him, “I don’t understand; aren’t you afraid of dogs?”

“Yes,” he answers, “but look behind me.”

Sure enough, looming closer and closer, is a pack of hungry lions. The fear of the lions trumped the fear of dogs. The larger fear dissipated the lesser one.

I once heard Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik say with his finger twisting in his unique way: “I am not a psychiatrist nor the son of a psychiatrist, but I know one thing, everyone fears: fear of sickness, of aging, fear of dying, the fear of rejection, of loneliness, loss of position, loss of money, loss of someone close. Who doesn’t fear? But there is one fear that has the power to remove all of the lesser fears that lurk on the horizon that threaten to wreak havoc in our lives, and that’s the fear of G-d.”

When the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:13) commands us, “Hashem your G-d you shall fear,” the intention is not to fill us with anxiety and dread but to give us a mechanism to remove our lesser fears. Strange as it is to say, G-d’s command to fear Him is an expression of His love, a precious gift. If we understand that the purpose of life is to grow a soul, then we can look on all the challenges that life confronts us with not fearfully, but as opportunities for growth. If we live our lives in fear of G-d, we always know He is with us, and we can say as it says at the end of Adon Olam, “G-d is with me, so I will not fear!”

Anatoly Sharansky — now Natan Sharansky — was tortured physically and mentally by the KGB. They moved him from security prisons to insane asylums, but they could not break his spirit. In one of his letters from prison, he wrote, “How can I beat the KGB? The answer is in the Book of Proverbs: Reyshit chochma yirat Hashem, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d,’ ” because fear of a higher power removes lesser fears.

King David in Psalm 23 states, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil for Thou art with me.” Notice he does not deny death, but his fear of G-d abates the fear of death.

So what truly constitutes the fear of G-d? First of all, the word for fear, yira, also means “awe.” To fear G-d means to be in awe of Him and the world He created—to see G-d in everything and everywhere. Second, to fear G-d means consequences — possibly severe consequences — if we don’t behave in a G-dly manner, if we are not compassionate toward our fellow man, if we don’t use the bounty G-d has showered us with to help others, if we ignore the Torah and commandments given to us for our own benefit, if we are hateful and bear a grudge, if we are spiteful, if we act with prejudice and, most important, if we don’t treat other human beings like the image of G-d they are. To fear G-d is to act with compassion and not with hate or ego. No, the terrorists in Paris did not fear their G-d or any other. They acted out of hate and failed to see the image of G-d in others.

I pray for G-d to help us always act with the fear of G-d, and may G-d protect us from those who do not.

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.