The Country of Yir’ah

The time it took me to write my previous post grew long, so I cut it down to being set-up material for this one just to get it out the door. Here was the summary with which I left things:

1- Words are how we divide the space of ideas into more specific “countries”. Our choice of vocabulary therefore not only reflects our thoughts, but shape them. And more importantly, they change what parts of our experience we notice, remember, and reinforce in our memories. A point the “Himba-Western Color Test” highlights. We could be living in different worlds.

2- In particular, we can’t really work on our yir’as Shamayim if we continue dividing the space in terms of fear (and terror, panic, etc…) and awe. Yir’ah may cover some of the same territory as the English concept of “fear” and much of the territory as “awe”. But yir’ah doesn’t come in two types / flavors / aspects. It is one stretch of emotional space.

3- And now that we looked at the neighboring “countries” of pachad and eimah, we are ready to explore the yir’ah as a primary concept in its own right.

To elaborate the last point:

… [E]imah and pachad incapacitate. Eimah freezes us with an inability to decide in the absence of data and surety; pachad triggers the fight-or-flight reflex, pushing us to react without taking the time for contemplation, for free-willed decision-making.

In contrast, yir’ah is the very essence of free will.

ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים…

Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yir’as Shamayim…

The truth is, I already wrote what I still think of (7-1/2 years later) as my canonical attempt to define yir’ah. It’s a fusion of the beginning of the treatment in Mesilas Yesharim with Rav Avram Elya Kaplan’s Be’iqvos haYir’ah. To quote excerpts:

In Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzato) writes of three kinds of yir’ah (fear / awe / awareness of magnitude).

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively.

R’ Shlomo Wolbe zt”l writes that today, we’ve lost that motivating quality. Punishment invokes more thoughts of rebellion than of compliance. …

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven

This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it’s fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself]).

Which would mean that it’s fair to assume this is the kind of yir’as shamayim is the one R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan described in Be’ikvos haYir’ah (translation from an article by R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer):

…To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance…

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Sadly, Rav AE Kaplan died in his early 30s and didn’t live to marry off a child. Having recently had that experience, I would provide what I think is a parallel but more extreme — and thus hopefully more clear — metaphor than dancing with one’s son: Yir’ah is what makes participating in one’s own daughter’s wedding so much more exciting and joyous than when attending the wedding of one’s neighbor’s daughter.

In music, a pedal point is “is a sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign, i.e., dissonant harmony is sounded in the other parts.” (Wikipedia) A low pitched note typically played on a pipe organ (with the pedal, the the name) and held. Even though the sound may fade from the conscious, it is played for its effects on how we perceive the other notes. One of the things a pedal point provides is a sense of weight to the music by giving a nice rich bass sound. Its role in music is akin to yir’ah‘s role in our psyche.

(Tangent: The pipe-organ evolved from a musical instrument used in the second Beis haMiqdash, the magreifah. [Eirkhin 10b11a] Interestingly, another instrument that also has the magreifah in its ancestry also has notes played and held in order to give a bass and weight to the music is the bagpipe with its drones.)

Pachad is fear of the other, the instinctive fight-or-flight when encountering a danger. But while yir’as ha’onesh is equally a self-preservational fear, to avoid personal pain, it is a fear of making the wrong choice. The danger is in my control — if I make the right choice. For someone to have yir’as ha’onesh they have to at least understand their choices. Otherwise, one faces eimah, the fear of the unknown and the terror of a life out of control.

What then is yir’ah? It’s the experience of encountering the the valuable. If we were to think in terms of awe and fear, both are involved; the awe of the Other and fear of ruining the encounter with it come as one. In the case of yir’as Shamayim, it is both yir’as haRomemus, the awe of standing before Divine Grandeur, as well as yir’as hachait, the fear of committing an action that is not in accord with respecting that Grandeur.

We saw that Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that all Hashem demands of us is yir’ah, and Rav Chanina explained that this is because Rav Chanina saying that every free-willed decision revolves around yir’as Shamayim.

This idea underpins one of the Mussar Movement’s foundation stories. A young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסר, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” Nesivos Or relates that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

Every time we choose something over its alternative, we are weighing pros and cons. We used some metric to decide one side was in some way greater than the other. That “greatness” could be in moral terms, clarity of truth, aesthetic pleasure, creature comforts or whatever — but on some scale the side that was chosen was found to be greater. Thus, every decision revolves around whether we use the Absolute system of values, aligning with Hashem’s plan for us, or some other metric.

I expect to be writing one more piece in this series: How yir’ah interrelates with other middos. (Prelude — Yir’ah and love or yir’ah and happiness are not dialectics or contrasts…)

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  1. July 2, 2020 – י׳ בתמוז תש״פ

    […] I hate trying to translate “yir’ah“, a concept that has no English equivalent, sitting in territory shared by “awe” and […]

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