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Torah Attitude: Shavuous and Parashas Nasso: Acquire Torah with love, fear and awe
The sixth and seventh things that the Mishnah mentions that we need to acquire Torah are fear and awe. There are several levels of fear of G'd. When our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, we find that G'd instilled in them both love and fear. G'd is both our Father and our King. What is the meaning of the double expression of judgment and reckoning? If we stray from the paths of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we are not only judged for our wrongdoings, but we have to give reckoning for not living up to our great potential. Every year, on the Festival of Shavuous, we have the opportunity to renew and strengthen our personal acceptance of the Torah.
Fear and awe
In last week's Torah Attitude, we mentioned that in order to involve the heart in our Torah study, we must learn how to speak the language of the heart. As a first step in this direction, we discussed how to develop a loving relationship with G'd. However, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 5:5) teaches that it is not sufficient to serve G'd out of love. This could bring a person to feel totally at ease, and eventually could bring the person to become disrespectful. The Talmud teaches that we must combine our feelings of love towards G'd with feelings of fear and awe. On the other hand, says the Talmud, if a person only serves G'd out of fear and awe, it could bring the person, G'd forbid, to hate fulfilling the commandments. Therefore, it is important that we develop both feelings of love and appreciation towards G'd, as well as feelings of fear and awe. With this insight we can well understand that the sixth and seventh things that the Mishnah mentions, that we need to acquire Torah, are fear and awe.
Levels of fear
Rabbi Moshe Luzatto (Path of the Just, Chapter 24) explains that there are several levels of fear of G'd. On a simple level, it means that a person should develop a fear of transgressing G'd's commandments in the Torah to avoid being punished. On a higher level, the fear is directly an outcome of one's love for G'd. When we realize how much we have to thank G'd for we have every reason to feel a strong sense of love towards Him. If we really love G'd it is only natural that we fear to transgress any of the Torah's commandments so as not to upset Him.
Love and fear
When our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, we find that G'd instilled in them both love and fear. On the one hand, Rashi (Shemos 20:2) quotes from the Mechilta that, when G'd revealed Himself to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, they experienced G'd's complete lovingkindness towards them. On the other hand, the Torah (Shemos 20:15-17) describes how the whole nation was in awe. As it says: "And the entire people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain. The people saw and they trembled and they stood from afar …. And Moses said to the people, 'Do not fear, for G'd has come to elevate you. And so that the awe of Him shall be on your faces, so that you shall not sin.'" We clearly see that it was necessary for the Jewish people to have both a sense of love and fear in order to accept the Torah and acquire it.
Father and King
Our relationship with G'd has ever since been one of love and fear. On the one hand, He is our merciful and compassionate Father Who loves us dearly. On the other hand, He is our King, Who sits in strict judgment, watches our every act, and instills us with awe and fear. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:1) says: "Know before Whom you have to give judgment and reckoning, before the King of Kings." There are many examples in the Torah where we are shown G'd's love for the Jewish people. Time and again G'd promises an abundance of blessings to those who fulfill the commandments. But G'd never allows us to forget the dire consequences if we transgress His commandments. This is a constant reminder, how we will have to stand in judgment and reckoning for every act we do, as the above-noted Mishnah teaches.
Judgment and reckoning
The commentaries on the Mishnah ask, what is the meaning of this double expression of judgment and reckoning? We may be able to explain it by analyzing one of the paragraphs in this week's portion. The Torah teaches the laws of the Sotah, a woman who has behaved in a fashion that gives her husband reason to suspect her of adultery. The Torah instructs that her husband shall take her to the kohein and bring along an offering. As it says (Bamidbar 5:15) "And the husband shall bring his wife to the kohein and he shall bring her offering for her, a tenth of an eifah of barley flour. He shall not pour oil over it and shall not put frankincense on it." Rashi explains in the name of the Midrash Tanchuma (3) why one should not put frankincense on this offering, as is otherwise the custom. This, says the Midrash, is because our Matriarchs are described in Shir HaShirim (4:6) as "heights of frankincense", and this woman did not follow in the path of our Matriarchs.
Our sages here teach us an amazing insight. If a Jewish woman falls so low and commits adultery, she is not only reproached for her actual sin, but she is reproached for not following in the footsteps of the Matriarchs. Rabbi Chaim of Valozhin explains that, as descendants of our great Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we have been put on a special path. These great men and women have paved the way for us to emulate them with relative ease. If we stray from their paths, we are not only judged for our wrongdoings, but we have to give reckoning for not living up to our great potential. This is what the Mishnah teaches: Everything we do, and everything we refrain from doing, will be scrutinized by the Heavenly court.
Every year, on the Festival of Shavuous, we have the opportunity to renew and strengthen our personal acceptance of the Torah. This includes both to study the Torah and to fulfill its commandments. May we develop our own love and fear of G'd so that we can utilize this opportunity to its fullest potential.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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