| Fundamentals |

Foundations and Roots

We all want to serve from love. So why is fear needed?


It's that time of year again: cheesecake and blintzes, flowers and greenery. The weather is mild, there’s no stressful deep cleaning or construction prep, no tense discussions about Chol Hamoed trips. Shavuos is something of an oasis in a year’s worth of labor-intensive Yamim Tovim.

Moving beyond the surface details, the deeper spirit of the day also meshes well with this positive, upbeat approach to Shavuos. Hashem gave us the ultimate gift, the Torah, and we happily accepted it with an emphatic “naaseh v’nishma.” He issued us two crowns, adorned the mountain with flowers, and we sailed into the spiritual sunset.

There is another account of Matan Torah, though, that appears less idyllic.

“ ‘And they stood at the base of the mountain.’ Rav Avdimi bar Chama says, this teaches that HaKadosh Baruch Hu held the mountain over them like a barrel and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, good. If not, there (under the mountain) will be your grave.’ ” (Shabbos 88b)

This gemara elicits many questions, chief among them: Why did Hashem deem it necessary to frighten Klal Yisrael with the specter of death if they had already lovingly accepted the Torah?

Tosafos explains that this was to preempt our reneging on naaseh v’nishma, a distinct possibility once we saw the raging fire over the mountain.

The Ideal Blend

Is there an ideal model for service of Hashem?

Chazal teach (Avos 1:3), “Do not behave like servants who attend their master to earn reward, rather behave as servants who attend their master without intention to receive reward, and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

Bartenura (ibid.) explains this paradoxical mishnah as the paradigm of serving Hashem from ahavah (love) and from yirah (fear) and recommends we draw on both in our avodas Hashem. “One who serves from ahavah is swift in performing positive mitzvos, and one who serves from yirah will be vigilant in avoiding transgressing negative commandments.”

Serve from fear, serve from love. When given a choice, the notion of serving from love seems more organic, more authentic, and far superior.

Over the last couple of decades, avodas Hashem from yirah has received a bad rap. “We love You, Hashem!” “Thank You, Hashem!” and the like seem more indicative of sincere mitzvah observance than “I don’t want to get punished.” Sometimes it seems that yirah has gone the way of the typewriter and the tape deck.

The difference between ahavah and yirah, though, is nuanced beyond simple love and fear. Ahavah is the internal motivation to serve Hashem. When we find ourselves drawn to a specific mitzvah, or perhaps naturally good at it, this is a function of serving Hashem from ahavah.

In contrast, yirah is the external motivation to serve Hashem. Sometimes yirah is the genuine fear of punishment, but it can also translate to concern for damaging our relationship with Him, or fear of losing a precious spiritual gain we’ve worked hard to achieve.

In general, yirah is a highly effective tool in many areas of life. Studying for exams, preparing for an important interview, or even getting out of bed for work are all somewhat yirah-based activities.

Do we study because we’re devoted to the subject matter, or because we don’t want to suffer the indignity of failing? Do we get out of bed for work because we desperately yearn to tackle another day of data analysis, or because we don’t want to be fired? Yirah is a deeply motivating force.

From Within and Without

In Zeri’ah U’binyan B’chinuch, Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s consummate sefer on raising children, he compares two mediums of a child’s development. Growth can issue from both a yesod, a foundation, and from a shoresh, a root.

A yesod supports an externally imposed stimulus. It represents growth originating from outside a person; the act of applying one brick to the next until a structure is firmly in place. A shoresh is an organic, internally motivated phenomenon, representing growth from within a person. It develops itself, burrowing deeper underground without any external intervention.

Rav Wolbe emphasizes the imperative for both zeri’ah and binyan in good chinuch. A child grows from drawing out dormant ability from within, but also from adhering to an externally imposed scaffolding. Zeri’ah issues from ahavah; it focuses on a child’s abilities and character traits, on his self-generated, organic imprint. Binyan issues from yirah; it’s the growth that stems from adhering to the rules and regulations that structure our world.

A child who is a product of pure binyan, sans zeri’ah, is a robot. He has been programmed to follow rules without any personal, intimate input of his own. A child raised on pure zeri’ah, sans binyan, is a pere adam (wild man) who has no sense of boundaries or control. A child needs the externally imposed structure of binyan to make the most of his internally generated zeri’ah. Yirah is the force informing our ahavah.

Forever His Nation

When Hashem selected us from scores of other nations and entrusted us with His Torah at Har Sinai, Klal Yisrael was embryonic, a tender nation born from the rubble of Pisom and Ramses. Our eagerness to receive the Torah, evidenced by our vigorous proclamation of “naaseh v’nishma” was fueled by abiding ahavah, an internally motivated desire for attachment to Hashem as we instinctively drew close to our Creator. Naaseh v’nishma was the shoresh of our nation’s development as ovdei Hashem, prestaging the abundant zeri’ah that followed.

However shoresh without yesod, zeri’ah without binyan, is a dangerous thing. Hashem wished to ensure that his nation would be neither a legion of robots, nor a band of wild beasts.

Because, as we’re well aware, there are mitzvos we connect to easily, and others less so. We are a nation of individuals whose natural temperament varies widely; some of us find certain mitzvos and middos easier to uphold that others find more challenging to keep. Relying on ahavah alone as a prototype for proper behavior may feel good, but it would forfeit the goal of developing into holistically dedicated ovdei Hashem; instead we’d devolve into a band of self-serving, albeit happy wild men.

Kafah aleihem har k’gigis;” Hashem held the mountain over our heads, and in doing so, infused our kabbalas haTorah with the vital element of yirah, the perfect complement to our “naaseh v’nishma,” that raw, spontaneous expression of ahavah.

And in wedding our ahavah to yirah, yesod to shoresh, and the binyan to the zeri’ah, Hashem ensured the development of His beloved nation for millennia to come.


Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 795)

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