‘And now, Israel, what does God your Lord ask of you? Merely to fear God your Lord, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve God your Lord with all your heart and all your soul’ (Devarim 10:12) and according to Rav Chanina in today’s daf (Brachot 33b), we learn from this verse that ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of Heaven (Yirat Shamayim)’. Moreover, the Gemara then cites a further teaching from Rav Shimon Bar Yochai based on the words of Yeshayahu 33:6 (‘The fear of Heaven – that is His treasure’) that the human trait most treasured by God is our fear of Heaven.
It is of note that both classic and modern commentaries spill much ink in trying to explain what ‘Yirat Shamayim’ actually is. However, perhaps the most basic and essential explanation of this concept is found in the words of Rashi who teaches that Yirat Shamayim is about having a constant awareness of God and a loyal relationship with God whereby, when presented with more than one life option – with one pointing towards greater spiritual growth and the other towards spiritual decline – you almost always choose growth.
Yet given the centrality of Yirat Shamayim in Jewish thinking and Jewish living, the Gemara is troubled by the phraseology of the above-mentioned verse since – according to Moshe – all God wants is ‘merely’ for us to fear Him. ‘Is fear of Heaven such a small (ie. easy) matter?’, asks the Gemara – to which it responds, ‘Yes – for Moshe it was a small matter’, while for others, it is anything but! What this teaches us is that while ‘Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of Heaven’, there are those people for whom faith in God and religious loyalty comes easily, and there are others who struggle.
Personally, as a teacher of many different people from many different backgrounds this is one of the most important lessons that I try and remind myself on a regular basis – and one that I believe all religious leaders and teachers should regularly revisit. Just because something is obvious to me does not make it obvious to someone else, and what for me may ‘merely’ be a simple mitzvah can, for another, be an enormous mountain for them to climb.
Ultimately, my task is not to say how easy faith is – because I can only speak from my experience. Instead, my task is to teach ideas about faith, while sharing inspiration and offering chizuk to each person as they – in their own way – find their own way towards owning their own Yirat Shamayim.