Good Fear by Tzvi Zuckier


One of the highlights of Parashat Naso is the presentation of Birkat Kohanim (BeMidbar 6:24-26), the Berachot with which the Kohanim bless Bnei Yisrael, which we utter everyday after Birchot HaTorah.  In Ashkenazic Diaspora communities, the Chazzan recites Birkat Kohanim in his daily repetition of Shemoneh Esrei in Shacharit, while the Kohanim recite the Berachot on Yom Tov.  The second Pasuk of this 3-Pasuk-long blessing is, “Ya’eir Hashem Panav Eilecha ViYchuneka,” “Hashem will light up His face to you and will be gracious to you.”

The Ketonet Ohr, cited by the Maayanah Shel Torah, offers a novel explanation of this Pasuk.  He mentions the Zohar’s teaching, “The letters of Hashem’s name which were engraved on the Kohen Gadol’s Tzitz (headband) were gleaming and everyone who looked at the Tzitz was struck with fear, his heart was broken, and thus his sins were atoned for.”  According to the Ketonet Ohr, this idea of the Zohar is an application of the second Pasuk of Birkat Kohanim, for Hashem acts with graciousness (“ViYchuneka”) when appearing to sinners (“Ya’eir Hashem Panav”) through the appearance of His engraved, gleaming name.  Additionally, the Ketonet Ohr explains how this appearance also leads to the fulfillment of the last Pasuk of Birkat Kohanim, “Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha VeYaseim Lecha Shalom,” “Hashem will turn His face towards you and will place peace upon you.”  By motivating Bnei Yisrael to perform Teshuvah through His appearance in this way (see Shaarei Teshuvah Shaar 1 Ikar 4 regarding how the act of emotionally breaking one’s heart is an aspect of Teshuvah), Hashem leads them to be peaceful with each other (“VeYaseim Lecha Shalom”).  Also, through their Teshuvah, Bnei Yisrael elicit Hashem’s attention (“Yisa Hashem Panav”).

Bnei Yisrael’s situation before, during and after Matan Torah, a core aspect of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, apply the same effect of “Ya’eir Hashem Panav.” Before giving the Torah, Hashem caused Bnei Yisrael to be scared.  The Torah (Shemot 19:16, which is read on Shavuot) describes Hashem sending thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, and the strong blast of a Shofar at Maamad Har Sinai.  Additionally, Bnei Yisrael didn’t approach Hashem completely of their own volition, seemingly because they were scared to do so, as the Pasuk teaches that Moshe caused them to go out to receive the Torah (“VaYotzei”).  Furthermore, following the presentation of the Aseret HaDibrot, Hashem caused another blast of thunder, lightning, etc. (20:15) which elicited a similar fearful response from Bnei Yisrael.  However, one blatant discrepancy between the two events is that Bnei Yisrael’s reaction to the second scene was, “VaYar HaAm VaYanuu VaYaamdu MeiRachok,” “And the nation saw and shook and stood from afar.” This difference sheds further light on Hashem’s addition to Bnei Yisrael’s sense of fear immediately before and after the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot.  While before the giving, Bnei Yisrael trembled, they did not go so far as to stand back from Hashem, their gracious God who was about to give them the ultimate gift.  Moreover, following the presentation of the Aseret HaDibrot, Bnei Yisrael request of Moshe, “Dabeir Ata Imanu VeNishmaah VeAl YeDabeir Imanu Elokim Pen Namut,” “Speak to us and we will listen and Hashem shouldn’t speak to us lest we die.”  Bnei Yisrael were not merely afraid; they were scared to death (literally).  Why did Hashem want Bnei Yisrael to be so afraid?  Why did He purposely send various natural forces, which He knew would scare them, before presenting the Aseret HaDibrot, and then continue sending those forces after the presentation?  Why didn’t Hashem give the Torah gently and delicately?

Interestingly enough, an answer appears in the Torah itself (Shemot 20:17).  Moshe responds to Bnei Yisrael’s request that he, rather than Hashem, speak to them, “Al Tira’u Ki LeVaavur Nasot Etchem Ba HaElokim UVaavur Tihyeh Yirato Al Peneichem LeVilti Techeta’u,” “Don’t fear, because Hashem is doing this to test you and in order that the fear of Him will be on your face so that you don’t sin.”  Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael that Hashem has a reason for sending frightening natural forces upon them, both before and after the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot; that He has a reason for speaking directly to them.  Moshe is telling them that Hashem is not doing these actions to make them fear death, but rather to implant fear of Hashem within Bnei Yisrael so that they do not sin.  This idea seems to explain the Pasuk (20:19) soon after Moshe’s response to Bnei Yisrael, in which Hashem instructs Moshe to report to Bnei Yisrael, “Min HaShamayim Dibarti Imachem,” “From the heavens I have spoken to you.”  Hashem informs Bnei Yisrael that Moshe is correct, that Hashem deliberately spoke to them from the heavens, the place where all of Hashem’s supernatural and powerful forces reside, in order to strike fear into their hearts so they avoid sin.

The idea of Hashem placing fear in Bnei Yisrael’s hearts before, during and after the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot so that they would make sure not to sin is parallel to how the Ketonet Ohr explains how the second Pasuk of Birkat Kohanim applies to the appearance of Hashem’s name on the Tzitz.  Just as Hashem put His bright, engraved name on the letters of the Tzitz in order to make Jews who see it be heartbroken and afraid of sin, so too He sent His powerful natural forces and spoke to Bnei Yisrael directly in order to put the fear of Hashem upon them.

Shavuot, the holiday most connected to Matan Torah, is a time for us to instill fear of Hashem in ourselves and mend our actions.  If someone is always mindful of Yirat Hashem, he is much more likely to avoid sin.  Although we are not yet privileged to live in a time when Hashem is as blatantly facilitating our acquisition of Yirat Hashem, we must still make every effort to instill this fear within ourselves.  With Shavuot approaching, we must take Hashem’s hints and do Teshuva.  In the upcoming days, when we will hear the Kohanim utter Birkat Kohanim and will hear the readings of Parashat Naso and Shavuot, we should remind ourselves to have Yirat Hashem and to do Teshuva.

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