Moving beyond daily fears to cultivate sense of awe


Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Ezekiel 44:15-31

There is so much fear around us and within us these days. Fears about terrorism in Israel and closer to home, fears about war and its consequences, about mysterious new epidemics and about the state of our own country. Even without turning on the news or picking up a newspaper, fear is a palpable presence. For many of us, fear disturbs our sleep; for others, it intrudes on our relationships; and for most of us, it mars our sense of peace and well-being. Only the luckiest (or perhaps, most evolved) among us have found ways of moving through this period with a sense of faithfulness and peace.

The Sefat Emet muses about two central characteristics of the character of Aaron, the high priest, in connection with this week's parashah, dedicated to special instructions for the priests' divine service. On the one hand, Aaron is said to be a God-fearing person, a person of yir'ah (fear or awe). And on the other hand, Aaron is praised as a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.

In his Torah commentary, the Sefat Emet asserts that Aaron's special quality of fear or awe was the core of his legacy to the priests that would follow him through the generations. He defined this quality as yir'at harom'mut, "awe of the sublime." This kind of "fear of Heaven," overpowering awareness of the power of the Divine, is an essential quality for Divine service. Regular exposure to the special quality of awe in the Temple, says the Sefat Emet, was a central reason for the commandment to make thrice-yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

The rebbe then brings a teaching from the Zohar, according to which wholeness (sh'lemut, from the same root as shalom) comes to those who fear God, as in "There is no lack for those who fear God" (Psalms 34:10). That is, since God-fearing people lack for nothing, they are whole or at peace.

The rebbe continues: "This is how Aaron attained the quality of peace and became a lover and pursuer of peace. Shalom is God's own name. Since he had that pure fear of God, he was able to attain peace. [That is why the holy city is named Yerushalayim, for she contains both yir'ah (fear) and shalom."] ("The Language of Truth," page 196)

In his subtle commentary to this teaching, Arthur Green observes that we tend to think of fear as antithetical to peace. Outwardly, fear makes us contract, becoming vigilant to real and perceived dangers. Our need to attend to our own safety can blind us to the needs of others, or to a broader perspective on the situation in which we find ourselves. Between those locked in mutual enmity, reconciliation generally becomes possible only when both sides can see beyond their own fears, to glimpse the humanity of the other and new possibilities as yet unseen.

So, too, in our inner lives, when fear is a constant presence, we can have no peace. The fearful mind can endlessly review the details of what threatens us and of dangers that may lurk ahead. Focused completely on frightening possibilities, there is no space for peace or trust. In such a state, we cannot let our guard down long enough to consider another way of being, or even to recognize evidence that could reassure us.

However, yir'ah means awe of the sublime, as well as fear of concrete threats. In a state of awe, we are drawn out of our ordinary perceptions, seeing that which is beyond us. Recognizing how small we are in the face of the mystery of life, we can relax our small perceptions of dangers and open to a comforting Reality that is beyond our grasp. At the ocean, at the redwood forest, at the graveside, in any situation in which we understand that we are out of control, we can be overtaken by awe. Swept beyond the concerns of our small human identities, we can access a moment of peace.

In these fearsome times, our world desperately needs to move beyond "shock and awe" to genuine recognition of that which is beyond our own fears and concerns. And we as individuals need to cultivate our inborn sense of awe, which may be our only pathway to peace. May the model of Aaron, a God-fearing person and a pursuer of peace, show us the way.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at