Is it ever desirable to serve God—or, for that matter, any good cause—out of abject fear?
At first glance, this week’s Torah portion seems to answer in the affirmative. Ki Tavo offers a few lovely blessings and a host of horrific curses that could easily be read as a path to observance grounded on the promise of reward and—more tellingly—fear of punishment.
Yet the great medieval scholar Moses Maimonides adamantly rejects this perspective. He writes:
A person should not say, 'I will fulfill the commandments of the Torah and occupy myself in its wisdom in order to receive all the blessings which are contained in it, or in order to merit life in the world to come. [Similarly,] I will avoid the transgressions which the Torah warned against in order to be saved from the curses contained in the Torah or so that I not be cut off from the world to come.'" This is not [worship at] the level of the prophets or the wise... The only ones who serve God in this [inferior] way are ignoramuses... and children, who are trained to serve from fear until their knowledge grows and they come to serve out of love" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 10:1)
With this in mind, it is worth noting that Hebrew word for fear—yir’ah—also means awe. What is the difference between these two responses? Rabbi Shai Held offers a critical distinction:
Awe is what happens to fear when it stops being about me. . . If one of the core goals of the religious life is to teach us that our interests and concerns ought not to be the exclusive center of our lives, then fear of punishment is something that must ultimately be minimized - or perhaps, according to some, jettisoned altogether. As an alternative, Jewish tradition offers us awe, wherein we acknowledge Someone far greater than ourselves, and thus allow God - and not our own egos - to become the very center of our world.
In just two and a half weeks, we will enter the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. I pray that they will be filled with just that—the kind of awe that wakens wonder and calls us to community. Only bullies rule out of fear. The God that I worship in this season and beyond wants radical amazement and pursuit of justice. To achieve those ends, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation would be truly awesome.