Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Wed., Sept. 19th)


Another deterrent to humility is the association with flatterers who steal your heart away with their praise. They will praise and exalt you for their own ulterior motives by expanding upon the good points you possess to the hilt, and then praise you unjustifiably in addition. And sometimes the very thing you are being praised for is what you should not be praised for.

The point of the matter is that human intelligence is actually quite weak, and human nature is gullible and easily swayed-- especially when it comes to something it just naturally leans towards. When you hear those sorts of things being said about you by someone you trust, a certain poison enters into you, you fall into the trap of arrogance and are captured. We find this to be the case with Yo'ash who was virtuous as long as he studied with his master, Y'hoyadah the Cohen, but who, after Y'hoyadah's death, listened to and took in what his servants said when they flattered and lauded him, and likened him to a G-d (2 Kings 12:3). This sort of thing is clear in the case of most kings, Lords and people of stature. No matter where they stand spiritually, they still stumble and suffer ruination as a result of the flattery of the people who surround them.

Therefore, the intelligent person will be more careful and scrutinizing of the person he would want to befriend, be counseled by, or oversee his household than he would of what he eats or drinks. Food or drink could only harm his body, but bad friends and associates could ruin his soul, his possessions and his honor. King David said, "The one who goes along the honest way will serve me. A deceiver will not dwell in the midst of my house" (Psalms 101:6–7). There is nothing better for you than to make friends with honest people who will open your eyes to matters you are blind to, and reproach you lovingly. They will save you from all evil. For what you cannot see when you overlook faults as we all do, they can, and they will warn you about it so that you will be protected. Regarding this it is said, "Salvation comes about through a lot of counsel" (Proverbs 24:6).


You will notice that this trait [i.e., fear of sin] is placed after all of the exalted traits we have discussed to this juncture. That should be enough to point out to us its importance. It is only fitting that it would be a very special and essential matter which is difficult to obtain, as would be expected of a trait that could only be reached by one who has obtained those already discussed to this point. We must however start off by saying that there are two sorts of fear that are actually three, the first of which is very easy to obtain-- there is nothing easier than it-- and the second of which is the hardest. When you have perfected it, you have perfected a lot.

The first category is fear of punishment. The second is fear of, or reverence for G-d's Grandeur, of which fear of sin is the subcategory. We will now explain their essences and how they differ. Fear of punishment is when you are literally afraid of transgressing the dictates of G-d because of the punishments (either corporeal or capital) that are due transgressors. This is certainly very easy to come to because everybody has an instinct for self-preservation and is concerned for his well-being, and there is nothing that is more likely to keep you away from doing something harmful to yourself than fear of its consequences. But this sort of fear is only fitting for illiterates and for simple-minded women-- not for sages and intellectuals.

The second category is fear of, or reverence for G-d's Grandeur. This holds sway when you keep away from transgressions and do not commit them, for the sake of G-d's great Glory. After all, how can it ever occur to the lowly and despicable heart that is man's to do something that runs counter to G-d's will? This sort of fear (or reverence) is not so easy to obtain. It only comes about through the knowledge and understanding that is brought on by the contemplation of the Grandeur of G-d and the markedly lower state of mankind. These are the sorts of realizations that come to those who understand and delve into these matters, and are like the reverence we noted earlier on in the second section of one of the subcategories of piety. A person in this category would be abashed and would tremble when standing before, praying to and serving his Maker. This is the most praiseworthy of fears for which the pious of the world are most exalted. It is what Moses was referring to when he said, "... to fear this glorious and fearful name, G-d your G-d" (Deuteronomy 28:58). This, the fear we are explaining now, that is, the fear of sin, is both a subcategory of fear of, or reverence for G-d's Grandeur and a category in its own right. It essentially involves your constantly fearing and worrying that your actions might contain a trace of transgression, or that there might be some small or even large thing therein that is not fitting for the Glory and Grandeur of G-d.

You can see the obvious relationship between this sort of fear and the aforementioned fear of, or reverence for G-d's Grandeur. Their common denominator is that you do nothing against G-d's lofty Honor. But what makes them different enough that they are two separate sorts and require two different names is the fact that the fear of, or reverence for G-d's Grandeur pertains only when you are either doing something, or are in the midst of serving G-d, or you are at the crossroads of a possible transgression. Because when you are worshipping or serving and a transgression is set before you and you recognize it as such, you should be abashed and ashamed, should shake and shiver for the loftiness of G-d's honor, and not do it so as not to (G-d forbid) rebel before G-d. But fear of sin should be a constant thing. You should always be afraid of stumbling and doing something or some half of something that is against G-d's honor. That is why this trait is called "fear of sin", because its essence is the fear that sin might enter into or mix in with your actions due to some negligence, weakness, or one or another unconscious reason. It is said regarding this, "The man who is constantly afraid is fortunate"(Proverbs 28:14), which our sages explained refers "to matters of Torah" (Berachot 60a). Even at those times when you do not see the stumbling-block before your eyes you should be anxious that it might be hidden and you are not being careful enough. Regarding such a fear our master Moses said, "G-d has come to test you so that His fear may be on your faces, and you will not sin" (Exodus 20:17).

This is the sort of fear a person should have. He should be agitated at all times and never allow this fear to leave him, for he will thus by never come to transgress. And should he transgress, it will be considered to have been done under duress. Isaiah said in his prophecy, "but I will look to this man-- to him that is poor, broken of spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2). King David praised this trait when he said, "Princes pursued me unjustifiably, but my heart feared only Your word" (Psalms 119:161). We find that the great and awesome angels constantly shiver and tremble for the Majesty of G-d. Our sages said parabolically about this, "From where does the River of Fire emit? From the perspiration of the Chayot Angels" (Chagiga 13b), all of which comes about from the great terror the angels experience at all times in regard to G-d's Grandeur. They fear that they might overlook some small aspect of the honor and holiness due Him.

Whenever or wherever the Divine Presence is revealed there is shaking, shivering and trembling. The Torah refers to this when it says, "The earth shook and the heavens dropped at the presence of G-d" (Psalms 68:9); and "Would that you would tear the heavens and come down, that the mountains would melt at your Presence" (Isaiah 63:19). This goes even more so for humans. It is only right that we should tremble and shiver in the knowledge that we are constantly standing in the Presence of G-d, and that it is so easy for us to do something that is not fitting before G-d's exaltedness. This is what Eliphaz was referring to when he said to Job, "What is man that he should be worthy, that one born of a woman should be righteous? Behold he has no faith in His holy ones, and in his sight, the heavens are not worthy" (Job 15:14–15); as well as, "Behold, he does not have faith in His servants, and he charges His angels with foolishness. How much more those who live in houses of clay" (Job 4:18–19). Therefore every person must certainly tremble and shiver at all times. Elihu then said, "My heart trembles and is moved out of its place at this as well; listen closely to the noise of His voice" (Job 37:1–2). This is the sort of fear that the truly pious should have on their faces at all times.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman