Monday, January 10, 2011

Pirke Avot 1:3- Do We Ultimately Serve G-d Out of Love or Fear?

This question is one of those intriguing dichotomies that Jews have attempted to resolve for centuries. Those to the Left of me emphasize G-d's love, whereas those to the Right of me emphasize having fear of G-d. What makes this issue so complex is that the love of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the fear of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:13) are both commandments straight from the Torah. This seems all the more irresolvable since these are considered two of the six constant commandments.

How are we simultaneously to feel love and fear for the same G-d? If we view "fear" as a debilitating force that makes us crumble by the mere thought of Him, then yes, this will remain a dichotomy. But, as one of my rabbis pointed out, the word  יראת, the word that is commonly translated as "fear," is better translated as "awe" or "reverence." If we view this "fear" not as a force that overwhelms us so badly that we cannot get out of bed in the morning, but rather as an awareness that makes us aware of His greatness, it becomes much easier to emotionally love and have reverence for G-d than it would be to love and fear at the same time.

There is, however, one issue that remains to be resolved, and that is the Jewish concept of reward and punishment. Whether we think this occurrence will take place in this life, the next, or we get reincarnated to make up for past lives, we cannot ignore this fundamental Jewish belief.

In Pirke Avot 1:3, Antignos of Socho told us to "be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving reward; and let the fear of heaven be upon you."

Antignos turns the "fear versus love" debate and turns it into a dichotomy. We cannot simply lose the "fear of G-d" not simply because it's a commandment, but if we lose reverence for G-d, we de facto lose awareness of Him, which renders Judaism moot.

As the Maharal points out in his commentary on this verse (Derech Chaim), the highest form of service is that which is motivated by the love of G-d. What both Antignos and the Maharal are pointing out is the high standard in Deuteronomy 6:5, which is we love G-d with all our hearts, might, and soul, i.e., we love Him 24-7.

Although this ideal might sound lovely and utopian, it neglects human nature. Humans have weak moments and are bound to err at multiple points in life. There are very, very few people that are able to maintain that G-d-directed energy, or what the Chasidim would call דבקות, all the time.

Upon having this discussion with a dear Orthodox friend of mine, he pointed out that this is the point where the notion of obligation plays its important role in Judaism. When we're too tired to go to the homeless shelter to volunteer or when we are having a bad day and don't feel like giving tzedakah, that is where reverence of G-d and obligation serve their function. If you based your relationship with G-d solely on love, you will most assuredly get sick of it all and drop it like a thousand-pound anvil in your hands when a bad day comes your way. This is why it's nice to have the reverence of G-d to accompany your love. When you are not "feelin' the love," obligation stemming from reverence of G-d becomes your safety net.  It will catch you and make sure you do the right thing, even if you don't feel like it that particular day.

In summation, love of G-d is our ideal and the ultimate goal for which we should aim. However, we are fallible creatures and thus need that reverence of G-d when external, or sometimes internal, circumstances cause our love to not be up to par. This view is both realist and idealist, which is why I love Jewish wisdom.  As we can see, Judaism can incorporate the reality of the human condition within its ethos while still keeping its ideals very much intact.

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