“Once [the Hasidic Master] Zusya [of Anipol] prayed to God:

‘Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Let me stand in awe of you like your angels, who are penetrated by your awe-inspiring name.’

“And God heard his prayer, and his name penetrated the hidden heart of Zusya as it does those of the angels. But Zusya crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: ‘Lord, let me love you like Zusya again!’ And God heard him this time also.” [1]


To get a glimpse of the awesome power that upholds the whole of the universe is terrifying.  To touch a Consciousness that oversees billions of years, thousands of planes, and myriads of different life forms overwhelms the human mind.

Like Rebbe Zusya, Arjuna was overcome with fear when the Lord Krishna revealed to him his power. Looking into God’s “fearful mighty form…reaching the sky, burning with many colors, with wide open mouth, with vast eyes…like the fire at the end of Time which burns all in the last day” (Bhagavad Gita, 11:23-25), he too asked that the vision be taken away.

Yet, this experience of raw Divine force is only one aspect of the awe of God. There is another aspect to the awe of God that is gentler and less overpowering. To feel awe at the beauty of God’s creation is also yirat shamayim. To rejoice in the miracle of birth and the splendor of a sunset; to be dazzled by the incredible diversity of life in its manifold forms, to marvel at the amazing array of personalities, cultures and religions that have emerged from the human race – all these experiences are expressions of yirat shamayim, the awe of God.

To feel the awe of God is to recognize before whom we stand in prayer and service. Who are we and what are we really? It is astonishing that a tiny speck of dust that exists for only the blink of an eye in the grand immensity of time and space can commune with the omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-knowing Lord of the Universe. To have the awe of God is to internalize the truth that any importance that we have arises out of God’s infinite compassion and lovingkindness, and not from any merit that we have earned on our own.

This, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains, is the meaning of the saying in Talmud Brachot 30B, “Where there is rejoicing, there will also be trembling.” We tremble because we comprehend the depth of our own insignificance and the enormity of God’s greatness. We rejoice because we have the rare privilege of being conscious, self-aware human beings that can love and serve God in the world.

Swami Turiyananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, was once speaking with one of his western devotees.

“We must depend on her [the Divine Mother] alone, and on nothing else”, he told him.

“But”, I [recounted the devotee] asked, “must we depend on her for our external wants?”

“Certainly”, he [Swami Turiyananda] replied, “for everything. Our body, mind and soul are given to Mother. On whom else then should we depend on? Let her give or let her take, it is all the same. Why should we care? When once given, how can we demand again? Blessed is he who can realize this.” [2]

If we live with yirah, we surrender the whole of our self to God. We depend on God for all of our needs. We turn to Him or Her for everything. We hold in our hearts the knowledge that we belong to God. If we truly believe that we belong to God and that He is all-powerful, then should we not also have faith that He will take care of His very own?

The Hasidic Master, Nachum of Chernobyl defines yirah as seeing that everything is from God, of God and filled with God. Yirah, he says, is to recognize that God is in control of our lives. He will decide if we are to be rich or poor. He will decide if our work will succeed or fail. He will decide if we will live or die. Yirah is to fulfill the Divine Will from a place of awe before the majesty of the Lord of the Universe.

Rebbe Nachum calls this level of yirah, inner yirah, as opposed to outer yirah, which is doing God’s Will because we are afraid that we will be punished if we do something wrong. Rebbe Nachum compares the mindset of inner yirah to the relationship between a body and its limbs. When the body performs an action, is it the limbs that are acting, he asks, or is it really our mind and will acting through the limbs? In a similar fashion, it is God’s Mind and Will that work through us. To live with the awe of God is to go about our life knowing that not we but God is the doer. To live with awe before God is to walk humbly in the world.

The Talmud Brachot 33B declares: “Everything is in the hands of heaven but yirat shamayim – the awe of heaven.” Everything is in the hands of heaven is the ultimate truth. We, however, have the choice either to accept this truth and live by it, or to just ignore it and continue going about our lives as if we are in control.

How very difficult it is for us to live with such faith. There are so many things in our lives that are not as we want them to be. It is a real challenge to maintain our confidence in God. But this is the essence of inner yirah: to accept whatever comes as the Will of God.

Psalm 111:10 declares: “The awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 12:13) concludes, “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: be in awe of the Lord and keep His commandments.” Yirah is both the beginning and also the end of the path. We begin our journey with a healthy regard for the power of the One Who is the Lord of the World. As we progress along the path, we develop first a firm understanding that God, not us, is the Master, then a steady faith that He is guiding and watching over us, and finally a profound inner knowing that God is the true actor in everything that occurs.

This yirah expresses itself most perfectly in the ready acceptance of whatever we have been given in our life, a sincere appreciation for the gifts of life and breath and consciousness, and the passionate fulfillment of whatever the Lord has placed before us with gratitude, humility and joy.

We cannot endure the awe of God that the angels experience; this is beyond our capacity. We do, however, have an opportunity that is uniquely human: the chance to choose the way in which we will live our lives, and through that choice express our yirat shamayim – our awe before the Lord.

 

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Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 246-7
  2. Swami Ritajananda, Swami Turiyananda, p. 113