Fear is a uniquely Jewish attribute.
We used to be referred to as “Ultra-Orthodox,” but now we are called “Chareidim,” loosely translated as “those who fear.” What is at the root of that designation? Is it complimentary or is the adjective meant to be derogatory?
In fact, the posuk praises people who fear. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, states, “Ashrei odom mefacheid tomid” (Mishlei 28:24). The yorei Shomayim, the choreid ledvar Hashem, is always fearful, making sure that he lives the proper life.
We have a holy chain of fear transmitted through the generations, from rebbi to talmid and parents to children. In our generation, when yirah in the big world is all but a forgotten word unless it relates to Covid, and respect is almost gone, among Chareidim there exists a tangible fear borne of respect.
Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, offers a puzzling explanation of the juxtaposition of parshiyos (Devorim 29: 9). He quotes the Medrash which states that after Klal Yisroel heard the curses described in Parshas Ki Savo, they were so distressed and frightened that their faces turned green. They were despondent, as they feared that they were ill-equipped to observe all the Torah’s commandments and were mortified at the ramifications of non-observance.
Moshe reassured them, saying, “Atem nitzovim hayom. Although you’ve angered Hashem numerous times over the years – with the meraglim, the Eigel, and other sins – you are still standing here and haven’t been destroyed.”
At first glance, the answer seems self-defeating. Imagine a parent warning his children that if they misbehave, they will suffer serious consequences. When the children react with fright, the parent reassures them that the threat isn’t really that serious after all and brings a proof to that effect.
In last week’s parsha, the Torah relates that Moshe told the Jewish people that when they crossed the Yardein into Eretz Yisroel, they were to build a mizbei’ach upon which to offer olos and shelomim and celebrate in front of Hashem. Where was this mizbei’ach constructed? Was it on Har Grizim, the mountain upon which the brachos (blessings) were recited, or Har Eivol, where the klalos (curses) were proclaimed? Amazingly, the mizbei’ach was to be arranged on Har Eivol, the mountain of the klalos.
Meforshim explain that Divine punishment is not meant as a consequence or retribution for a sinful act. It is a tool used by a loving Father to guide His wayward children onto the correct path. What is important is that they behave properly, not the imposition of the penalty. Therefore, the korbanos were brought on Har Eivol in appreciation of the nudge reminding them to stay on the path of goodness.
Thus, it follows that when Moshe saw that following the recitation of the klalos “peneihem morikos,” their faces had changed colors, he understood that the klalos had achieved their desired effect and the people would behave properly.
This is the fear of chareidim. It is not a fear that leads to desperation, but rather a fear that leads to joy, as expressed in the posuk (Tehillim 2) which states, “Ivdu es Hashem b’yirah, vegilu biradah – Serve Hashem with fear and rejoice in trembling.” We are inspired, optimistic people. Our fear does not hold us back. It motivates us.
The mood during the days of Elul is supposed to be that of fear – fear of the impending trial we face on Rosh Hashanah. Those who tremble during Elul demonstrate through peneihem morikos that they are in tune with the time, and because they are fearful, they will merit to be vindicated on Judgment Day. The fear during Elul is not born of panic or dread, but rather reverence and awe generated by being in the presence of Hashem at a time when He is closest to us.
The holy fusion of fear and joy found amongst those who are chareidim portrays their inner faith and deep vision; the perception that fear, the peneihem morikos, is the reaction desired by Heaven. Shomayim doesn’t punish. It reminds. Ehrliche Yidden are attuned to these reminders.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and his wife, Rebbetzin Baila Hinda, were joyous people, yet they lived with this awareness, an ever-present sense that the Creator is with them. One day, as the rebbetzin prepared a glass of tea for her husband, the cup suddenly shattered in her hand. Within moments, she sat down with her husband to consider why it had happened and what the message was.
“Did you perhaps display a ‘closed hand,’ not giving tzedakah when requested?” the rosh yeshiva wondered.
The rebbetzin recalled that when she was doing her shopping earlier that day in the Machane Yehudah shuk, a collector approached her for money. The rebbetzin, who only had a large bill with her, asked the poor man to wait a moment while she got change from one of the kiosks. She changed the bill into smaller denominations, but when she returned to where she encountered the beggar, he was gone.
“Yes,” concluded the rosh yeshiva, “that must be why the glass broke in your hand.”
For chachomim, reminders suffice. Dai lechakima beremiza, say Chazal. The wise man needs only a hint.
The best way to appreciate this season is to approach it as chachomim, with our eyes open and hearts awake to the messages being sent our way. It is easy to ignore them, to be apathetic or blind to the messages of Hashem. When we understand that yissurim come to strengthen us and when things don’t seem to go the way we would like it is for a reason, we are on the path of personal redemption. Peneihem morikos. The fright itself can suffice to evoke Divine mercy.
Think about it. If used correctly, fear can be the healthiest of emotions, a tool to craft a blessed new year for us and our families.
At one of his Thursday night shiurim, when all sorts of questions were welcomed from the audience, Rav Avigdor Miller explained the nature of bitachon.
“Bitachon means Hashem will take care of you if you trust in Him, but that trust requires you to do what He wants you to do, and He wants you to be ‘mefashpeish bema’asov,’ to search into your ways. Self-scrutiny is a mitzvah just like wearing tefillin is a mitzvah.
“If a man has a toothache,” continued Rav Miller, “and he goes to the dentist, and the dentist says, ‘Open wide,’ he should think, ‘Why do I have to open my mouth wide? Because I shouldn’t have opened my mouth so wide at other times. I opened my mouth against my wife; that’s why I now have to open it for the dentist. I opened my mouth against my fellow Jew, so now I have to deal with this.’”
Living with this awareness, Rav Miller was teaching, is an expression of faith. Seeing Hashem’s message in all occurrences is empowering, because it underscores how relevant our every action is and how important it is to Hashem to prod us on to the right path.
Perhaps this answers the paradox regarding the nature of Rosh Hashanah. The day contains the obligation of experiencing the joy of a Yom Tov, yet, at the same time, the fear of judgment is just as essential. We can understand it by comparing it to the fear experienced by someone who has sat in conversation with a great person. Sure, you are overcome by awe, it is sometimes difficult to speak, and you choose your words carefully, but despite that, at the same time, you feel valued and relevant when you are in the presence of greatness.
I remember when I sat with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach for the first time after this newspaper was founded. I was very young and I was clean-shaven. Rav Shach overwhelmed me with Torah, love and guidance, and it was difficult for me to speak. The nicer he was to me, the more self-conscious I was of my youthful appearance, feeling that I was unworthy of his beneficence.
Though I was fearful in his presence, I left invigorated and charged for my mission.
When one is in the presence of greatness, especially when the great person reacts in a kind and loving fashion, one is at the same time joyful and fearful, as the posuk states, “Vegilu biradah.”
During these Elul days, it is our certainty of Hashem’s proximity and our assurance that He is listening closely that is the cause of both our simcha at the opportunity it affords and the fear of the magnitude of His power and might.
“Dirshu Hashem behimatzo – Seek out Hashem when He is accessible,” says the posuk. This is the most empowering time of the year, the exalted moments when we are being ushered into His presence. He will scrutinize our actions and seek to help us improve, but by being vigilant and attuned to His will, we ask that He give us the opportunity to improve without being rebuked or disciplined.
We say twice daily in L’Dovid, “Hashem ori veyishi mimi ira.” What we are saying is that Hashem illuminates the path before us, helping us identify mistakes we have made, and “veyishi,” enabling us to patch things up. As He helps us do teshuvah, straighten out our lives, and return to His embrace, “mimi ira,” we need not fear that people will harm us.
The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (5b) relates that Rav Papa said, “Ein atzvus lifnei Hakadosh Boruch Hu – There is no grief in Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s presence.” Now that we are in the period when we are closest to Hashem, there should be no grief, even as we approach the Day of Judgment, when all of mankind will undergo Heavenly scrutiny.
We are all faced with problems and wonder how we can deal with and overcome them. Know that you are not alone. Hashem is right there, alongside you, guiding and assisting you as you seek to find your way in the darkness. He is there all year, yet He is even closer during these days of Elul and the coming Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
Don’t be despondent. Don’t think that the job is too difficult for you. Don’t think that you can’t overcome the nisyonos that you are faced with. Don’t worry that you won’t succeed in doing proper teshuvah for your aveiros. Don’t think that you won’t be able to bring yourself to the level that will ensure that you emerge zakai in din.
Those who fear Hashem feel Him. Those who fear Hashem merit His closeness. Those who fear Hashem know that He is there with them, helping them approach Him.
Everyone can be a Chareidi, no matter how they dress, where they live or what they do for a living.
May we all merit to be Chareidim, people who fear Hashem, and emerge meritorious on the Yom Hadin.