“And thus, Eternal One our God, instill Your fear in all Your works and Your dread in all You created. That all Creation shall be in awe and all creatures shall worship You.”
—Rosh Hashanah liturgy, Renew Our Days, Rabbi Ron Aigen
With all my being, I long for God. This sentence, while not yet a description of my life, does set the parameters for my life of practice. Looking to the deep devotion expressed in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, I continue to try to make every experience, emotion, and thought bring me closer to God.
Fear is part of the emotional spectrum I experience. As such, I do not ask whether it is a good idea to fear God. Rather, I ask this: How is fear part of my relationship with God? How do I frame my fear so that it brings me closer to a God I truly believe in?
Rabbi Nahum of Chernobyl, an early Hasidic master known by the name of his book, Me’or Einayim, teaches that God sends us small human fears — regarding loss of life or loved ones, regarding our health, property, or honor — in order to teach us how to fear and love God while trying to avoid getting caught up in the small fears themselves. (See Me’or Einayim on Parashat Kedoshim.) Most of us have a negative attitude toward fear, and we strive to overcome it or “make it go away.” Yet the practice of reorienting fear toward God requires that we take a different stance — one of evoking and embracing fear in a particular context. Feeling such fear is one of the central practices of Rosh Hashanah, and it is referred to often in the liturgy. I draw on another early Hasidic master, Meshulam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh, to present a practice of embracing such fear. (Yosher Divrei Emet 2:53)
Every year on Rosh Hashanah, the world is created anew. But God’s first act of Creation is not to deliver something new. Rather, the first act of Creation is tzimzum — the kabbalistic notion that God draws what already is, inward, into God, into the source of all being, into the root that precedes differentiation, in order to make room for something new to come into being. Every Rosh Hashanah, God takes in a breath and breathes us in, together with the entire universe, and then God breathes a new world out.
God is not a great dragon about to swallow us. We are of God, and because of this we are transparent to God. It is as if God knows us through God’s own self-awareness rather than through external observation. (Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim 8:13) Therefore, to ride the in-breath of God to the source is to unravel every knot we have become ensnared by. To come that close to God is to work through every crooked brokenness that shapes who we are. To ride God’s in-breath is to face all our difficulties without turning away, to have them all seen without seeking a place to hide.
The deeper we ride this in-breath into God, the closer we get to the possibility of re-creation. This rebirth, a new beginning, is both the promise and the challenge that the High Holidays extend to us. Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, is when — to the extent that we are willing to embrace the fear of consciously being transparent before God — we can adopt a fresh start and be created anew. In this process, even our most subtle mistakes will shine out and will need to be faced, addressed, and resolved.
The most common word for “fear” in Jewish devotional texts is “yir’ah,” which has the same letters as the word “to see,” “yir’eh,” and “to be seen,” “yera’eh.” Fear of God can be understood, then, as the experience of being seen fully within divine consciousness.
And for all of us on Rosh Hashanah, this is the path to re-creation in God, to the possibility of a new birth for ourselves and for the entire world.
Ebn Leader became a student of Rabbi Arthur Green’s in 1999. He is one of three co-editors who worked with Green in editing Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table. He joined his teacher in establishing the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.