In honor of our new publication, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, a new anthology edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, the CCAR Press proudly presents an excerpt from a chapter written by Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal. This new book, which unites more than 50 authors who offer commentary on each of the 54 weekly parashot juxtaposed with the mussar middot, is available for purchase from CCAR Press.
“Yirah—Awe: From Fear to Awe”
Jacob goes through a major life transformation in Parashat Vayishlach, including a wrestling match with God and a change in his name from Jacob to Israel. These changes are reflective of changes in Jacob’s character as well, as he goes from a person filled with fear to one who is full of awe and gratitude. His transformation involves resolving old issues and grappling with feelings of guilt over his stealing the blessing and birthright from his brother—and, in the process, lying to their father, Isaac. As Jacob prepares to see his brother Esau in the morning, he lies restless. The Torah tells us of his state of mind: vayira Yaakov, “Jacob was terrified” (Genesis 32:8).
Later in the parashah, we learn why Jacob is fearful, as he says, “I am afraid of him, lest he advance on me and strike me” (Genesis 32:12), referring to his brother Esau. That night, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River, and then he is left alone to wrestle in the night with an unknown man or angel or messenger of God; the Hebrew word used is ish, “man” (Genesis 32:25). Jacob does not let the man go without demanding a blessing. The other says to him, “What is your name?” and he says, “Jacob.” “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” says the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28–29). A verse later in the Torah tells us: “Jacob set up a monument in the sacred site where [God] had spoken to him. . . . Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him Beth El [House of God]” (Genesis 35:14–15).
In Jewish thought, “fear” (yirah) of God is understood to be complementary to “love” or “awe” of God. In fact, the term yirat HaShem, or “fear of God,” is equal to following the Torah and mitzvot, according to Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380–1444, Spain), author of Sefer HaIkarim. In the teachings of Mussar, however, we find a very interesting concept when it comes to the middah of “fear/awe.” Alan Morinis writes, “Though yirah can describe the unified fear/awe experience, the term can also be used for the singular experiences of fear and of awe. . . . The Duties of the Heart makes this very point: ‘The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of His Glory, majesty, and awesome power.’” 1
In other words, fear and awe can be two separate traits completely, or they can be merged together. Many Mussar teachers encourage us to “orient ourselves toward the side of fear,” 2 especially of divine retribution for our transgressions. The middah is clearly about fear in the writings of the Mussar masters, as the words that often accompany this concept involve physical manifestations of fear: people shaking, sweating, quaking, and experiencing some kind of terror. Many people resonate to this idea that we should be fearful of God’s retribution for our own wrongdoing and that that fear will keep us on the right path.
However, Jacob is a model of another kind of yirah. Jacob is fearful, and rightly so. Not only has he done wrong in the eyes of God, but he has wronged his brother, who may understandably be hurt and angry with him. Jacob moves beyond his fear, symbolized by the wrestling he does with a man (perhaps his conscience?) throughout the night. When we have wronged someone, we, too, must take that fear of what may become of us, either through divine punishment or the anger of the person we have harmed, and turn it into something more productive.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, in his book, The Gates of Light, writes that the experience associated with awe is the higher form of yirah, saying, “It is clear that the awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.” He teaches that awe must stand on a foundation of fear. So, perhaps, to get to awe, we must first go through the fear of punishment, work through it in some way, to get to the other side of it, much like Jacob crossing the River Jabbok, wrestling with a man, and then and only then being able to feel the awe for God that leads him to build a monument.
Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal has served as a rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, since her ordination in 2006, becoming the senior rabbi in 2015. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, Austin. She enjoys teaching students of all ages, and Holocaust and Israel are two of her areas of expertise. Siegal is a contributor to the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.