Vaera 2023: Do We Want to Fear God?

Fear of God is an uncomfortable idea for many modern people, but what did our ancestors actually mean when they said it? Join me in investigating God, astrology, and quantum physics to try to figure it out.
רֵ֘אשִׁ֤ית חׇכְמָ֨ה ׀ יִרְאַ֬ת יְהוָ֗ה The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Adonai; 
שֵׂ֣כֶל טֹ֖וב לְכׇל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם all who practice it gain sound understanding.

This line from Psalm 111 has always puzzled me. My contemporary mind and experience chafe at the idea that fearing God is central to our religion; central to our existence. Many suggest we translate that discomfort out of the phrase, by claiming that, in fact, the word means “awe,” not fear. But that is a spurious attempt at comforting our modern sensibilities, which I think ends up avoiding an integral part of our tradition.

In our Torah portion this week, we bump up against this question. God, while charging him with his sacred duty to lead the Israelites out of slavery, says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יהוה.”

The ancient rabbis were completely bowled over by this. What? Somehow Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t know the true God? And what of the places all over Genesis where it says that they used Adonai as God’s name? One of the most central sages of Torah, Ramban, writes: What the text really means is that God appeared to the Patriarchs as El Shaddai, the name by which God can overcome astrological forces and perform miracles that are great, but do not upset the natural order of things. 

Our tradition has always been uncomfortable with astrology. ultimately our sources believe astrology does, indeed, work, but does not wholly apply to the people of Israel. Rambans’s interpretation brings out the stark relief of God’s miracles in this week’s Torah portion to that which came before. We read about the nature-defying plagues raining down upon the Egyptians, amongst other wholly supernatural occurrences. 

In contrast, the great miracle performed for Abraham was the elderly pregnancy of Sarah. If, according to this understanding, Abraham had known God as Moses did,  perhaps Isaac would have miraculously appeared fully formed, rather than going through the normal gestational process. On a similar note, Ibn Ezra, another of our most central commentators, adds this idea: Cleaving to God in order to overcome one’s predetermined fate is the mystery underlying the entire Torah. This difference between relating to these two aspects of God is integral to understanding fear of Adonai.

Judaism writ large, as Ibn Ezra puts it, is about creating a relationship with the Divine that allows us to move beyond the normal conception of what is possible; to accept the limitations of our own knowledge, and see that, in fact, the patterns and forms that we believe to be immutable can be absolutely changed by God.

Many of you may be thrown off by the talk of astrology and miracles as part of this underlying theology, but let me try to clarify with contemporary science. In her book, Understanding Our Unseen Reality, Dr. Ruth Kastner explains quantum theory this way:

Let us recall Plato’s Cave…There are prisoners chained in the cave so that they can only see the wall in front of them, which has shadows dancing across it. The prisoners take the shadows as real, because to them they are the only things that are observable…Now, suppose the light is turned off. There are no shadows; but those objects which could cast shadows if the light were turned on, still exist…In a similar way, quantum possibilities are necessary precursors to spacetime events…quantum possibilities are not contained within spacetime, and are not certain to give rise to specific spacetime events, but they are necessary precursors to any such event.

Similar to the dynamic between the two kinds of miracles above, we find here a frame for understanding “fear of Adonai” as related to our own ignorance. The Patriarchs, in their relationship to God as El Shaddai, would have been like the prisoners in the cave, like many of us, attributing God to the shadows dancing in the light. Moses, on the other hand, would have turned around, and seen the objects which cast the shadows, and the source of the light itself: The quantum possibilities outside of spacetime. 

Underlying the whole Torah, is this idea: Those objects, and that light, is the ultimate source of all reality, and we are not capable of knowing precisely what they are, or how they will manifest. Just as quantum physics dwells in the realm of the unknowable, beyond that of tangible reality, so too does the Jewish conception of Adonai. Adonai is simply giving a name to that experience.

The Talmud teaches: Rava was wont to say: The objective of Torah wisdom is to achieve repentance and good deeds... as it is stated: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of Adonai, all who practice them gain sound understanding” (Psalms 111:10). It is not stated simply: All who practice it, but rather: All who practice them, those who practice repentance and good deeds, as they ought to be performed, meaning those who do such deeds for their own sake, not those who do them not for their own sake. One who does them not for their own sake, it would have been preferable for them had they not been created.

Fear of Adonai is not fear of a vengeful man in the sky, liable to strike us down with a lightning bolt, but the fear that comes from looking directly into the darkness and realizing that we do not and can not truly know what will come of it. Let us remember that acknowledging our own ignorance, acknowledging our own limitations, is the beginning of wisdom. We may only see the shadows dancing on the walland act accordingly, but if, regardless of how those shadows dance, we seek repentance and good deeds for their own sake, we are beginning to attain wisdom. 

Let us, in our days and our nights, see that fear of the unknown is the beginning, not the end of wisdom. Let us accept and move beyond that stage of fear, getting to the underlying mystery of Torah, and use this knowledge to guide our hearts and our words towards further wisdom.