Yir’ah and its Middos

The story so far…

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. 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 the language the mesorah speaks in does not divide this “continent” by the feelings generated by neurochemicals and hormones. Rather, it speaks of each constelation and dynamic of emotions in various kinds of encounters and entities in themselves. Pachad in the face of a well understood thread, eimah when facing something remote and incomprehensible, and yir’ah. Defining yir’ah as “awe / fear” misses this basic difference in perspective. We still think in terms of various bodily responses rather than recognizing the feeling of participating in something important — both the awe of the moment and the fear of making the wrong decision about something momentous. In reality, it’s all one sensation.


A thought that would have belonged in my previous post if I would have had the before writing it…

Rabbi Chanina speaks of “yir’as Shamayim” rather than “yir’as Hashem” when he says “All is in the control [literally: hands of] Shamayim except for yir’as Shamayim.” The one thing we can choose for ourselves is what we value. Are those values in line with Hashem’s plan for us, or are they creations of our own? Yir’ah as the key to free will isn’t so much our notion of Hashem’s importance in and of itself as the importance of that which He decreed central to our lives. This is “Shamayim“, Hashem in the context of a “retinue” running the universe.

But now, on to the intended topic…


Yir’ah, Zehirus and Zerizus

Zehirus is usually translated Watchfulness or Caution. I would suggest “Awareness”. The Ramchal opens Mesilas Yesharim ch. 2 (tr. R’ Shraga Simmons) with a description:

הנה ענין הזהירות הוא שיהיה האדם נזהר במעשיו ובעניניו, כלומר, מתבונן ומפקח על מעשיו ודרכיו, הטובים הם אם לא, לבלתי עזוב נפשו לסכנת האבדון חס וחלילה ולא ילך במהלך הרגלו כעור באפלה.

THE IDEA OF WATCHFULNESS is for a man to exercise caution in his actions and his undertakings; that is, to deliberate and watch over his actions and his accustomed ways to determine whether or not they are good, so as not to abandon his soul to the danger of destruction, God forbid, and not to walk according to the promptings of habit as a blind man in pitch darkness.

The connection to yir’ah is self-evident. Less obvious is the connection to zerizus. Again, turning to the Ramchal, this time ch. 6:

אחר הזהירות יבוא הזריזות, כי הזהירות סובב על ה”לא תעשה” והזריזות על ה”עשה”, והיינו (תהילים לד:טו): סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב. וענינו של הזריזות מבואר, שהוא ההקדמה למצות ולהשלמת ענינם. … ותראה כי טבע האדם כבד מאד, כי עפריות החמריות גס, על כן לא יחפוץ האדם בטורח ומלאכה. ומי שרוצה לזכות לעבודת הבורא יתברך, צריך שיתגבר נגד טבעו עצמו ויתגבר ויזדרז, שאם הוא מניח עצמו ביד כבדותו, ודאי הוא שלא יצליח. הוא מה שאמר התנא (אבות ה:כ): הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם….

AFTER WATCHFULNESS comes Zeal, Watchfulness pertaining to the negative commandments and Zeal to the positive, in accordance with the idea of “Depart from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15).” “Zeal,” as the name implies, signifies alacrity in the pursuit and fulfillment of mitzvos. … A person’s nature exercises a strong downward pull upon him. This is so because the grossness which characterizes the substance of earthiness keeps a man from desiring exertion and labor. One who wishes, therefore, to attain to the service of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, must strengthen himself against his nature and be zealous. If he leaves himself in the hands of his downward-pulling nature, there is no question that he will not succeed. As the Tanna says (Avos 5:20) “Be fierce as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven.”

Zerizus is described at the flipside of zehirus. What zehirus taught us about when not to act (“sur meira — turn from evil”), zerizus teaches about when to do so (“va’asei tov – and do good”). More than that, the Ramchal notes that the basic job in developing zerizus is fighting the mass that comes with a body, laziness. Zerizus is actually a form of zehirus; it is a caution about being overly lazy, being aware about the cost of inaction.

Both are actually expressions of yir’ah, fear of damaging some of great value.

As we saw, yir’ah is the point about which free will revolves. It is not surprising, then, that both the motive for inaction and for action flows so directly from yir’ah.

Yir’ah and Anavah

These two middos are the transitive and intransitive versions of the same worldview, respectively. Yir’ah is my estimation of the other and my concern of damaging my connection to greatness. Anavah is the realization that my estimation of my self does not outweigh the importance of my connections to the other.

I also posted once on how true anavah motivates, because it as an awareness of the grand scheme of things and one’s place in it. Unlike the damaging effects of Rav Zechariah ben Avqulos’s modesty, when his inability to take a stand led to the destruction of the Temple. And perhaps this is why the gemara takes pains to coin the word “anavanus” for that story, rather than the usual term, “anavah“. This parallels what we saw about yir’ah, in contrast to pachad and eimah. Yir’ah is constructive; it motivates seeking appropriate action.

Yir’ah and Simchah

In the previous post in this sequence (“The Country of Yir’ah“) I already quoted Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan’s example of theyir’ah of dancing with your young son on your shoulders:

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy…  [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end [like the inner rod that held together the walls of the Mishkan, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

He continues:

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir’ah… And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of punishment (“yir’as ha’onesh”). This is also vision – seeing things as they really are… One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re’iyah) will he fear (yir’ah), and only if he fears will he repent… And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness (“yir’as haromemus”) – that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here – “The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel.” From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one’s responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall…). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength (“oz”) – an inner, bold, uplifting, strength (“Hashem oz li’amo yiten…”) and a strength that leads to peace (“shalom”) and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed (“… Hashem yivareich es amo ba’shalom”). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: “Reishis chochma yir’as Hashem.” A fear that is vision. “And remember” – “And see” – “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid…

This then is the preamble to the Song at the Sea (Shemos 14:31-15:1):

וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה, וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ. אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת…

And Yisrael saw the Great Power [lit: Hand] which Hashem did in Egypt, and the nation had yir’ah for Hashem, and they believed in Hashem, and in Moshe His servant. Then Moshe and the Benei Yisrael would sing this song…

Sight (re’iyah) leads to yir’ah, leads to trust and faith (emunah), which leads to bursting out in joyous song.

Yir’ah gives an event or process the importance, the momentum, necessary to move us to joy.

Yir’ah and Ahavah

Yir’ah and love are often portrayed in contrast, as though they were poles of a dialectic. And if yir’ah meant “fear” this would be understandable. Fear for something drives out the possibility of living it. Even awe has some level of conflict with love — awe gives one a feeling of distance, love is an emotion of attachment, of closeness.

But yir’ah is an awareness of the value of something. And something that isn’t valued, that isn’t thought of as important, can’t be the object of love.

Yir’as hacheit flows from ahavas Hashem. It is very much the feeling a husband in a happy marriage has when making decisions that would impact his wife. He is not afraid of her revenge, but one that flows from how important it is to him that she remain happy. It is not the fear of repercussions for sinning, it is fear of the sin itself, of wronging my Beloved.

Yir’ah without love – surely there is here a deficiency of yir’ah;
love without yir’ah – there is nothing here at all.

- R. Yitzchak Hutner, Igeros uKesavim pg 346

And your thoughts...?