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Beit Midrash Series Ein Ayah

Awe and Fear of the King

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When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai became seriously ill, his students came to visit him. When he saw them, he began to cry. They asked him why he was crying, and he answered: "If they would take me before a human king who - today is alive and tomorrow will be in the grave, if he gets angry at me, his anger is not eternal and if he incarcerates me, the incarceration is not eternal, if he kills me, the death is not eternal, and I can appease him with words and bribe him with money - still I would be afraid. Now that they are bringing me before the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, who - if He gets angry at me, His anger is eternal, and if He incarcerates me, the incarceration is eternal, and if He kills me, the death is eternal, and I cannot appease Him with words or bribe Him with money, and furthermore, there are two paths before me, one to Hell and one to the Garden of Eden, and I do not know in which path they will take me - should I not cry?"

Ein Ayah: Crying is linked to the spirit and the emotion. When one realizes that he will have to stand before someone far greater than he in ability and level, even if he has no logical reason to be afraid, it is still fitting for him to be overcome with emotion and awe while contemplating the encounter. If one did not feel that way before going before Hashem, it would be a sign that he did not recognize Hashem’s greatness. Certainly, just as truth can emerge from logic and intellect, so can it emerge from actions and emotions. When an emotion is missing, something cognitive is also missing. Only when moved by the upcoming encounter with the Divine can a person approach the truth of Hashem’s greatness. Even before a human king, one should be awed by his ability to mete out punishment, even if one is logically confident that he has done nothing to expect punishment. If one’s logical confidence cannot overcome his emotion of awe and fear regarding a human king, all the more so before the King of kings, whose capabilities are limitless.
Regarding the areas of completeness (shleimut), one can identify three relevant areas: shleimut in actuality, in freedom, and in love. Shleimut in love is the highest level, as it engenders full happiness and brings with it the goodness of wisdom.
Corresponding to these areas, Rabbi Yochanan mentioned three things about the king’s potential treatment of him. The matter of anger corresponds to the opposite of love, which, in such a central relationship as with the king, is an important matter. Incarceration relates to the loss of the shleimut of freedom, and death relates to the loss of the shleimut of existence. None of these matters needs to be so terrifying if the power to cause the loss can be neutralized. One can fix things in different ways. Appeasing relates to removing the reason for the anger, as it can put the king’s anger, which is the danger, to rest. Externally, one can give a bribe and remove a harsh decree, despite the king’s intrinsic desire to carry it out. However, if it is Hashem who has made a decree because of reasons of justice so that an area of human shleimut is at risk, there is no intrinsic or external way to overcome it [without one doing something to give him new merit]. Facing such a potential danger, one should be awe-struck, even if he logically realizes that his situation should be safe.
However, there is also a logical reason for concern. That which we consider righteousness or evil has a lot to do with our subjective nature, including our physical side. It is possible that one thinks he has sufficiently fulfilled his obligations because he did not succeed in elevating himself sufficiently. If one opens his eyes, he might see that which is wrong about him. Thus, Rabbi Yochanan had both an emotional and a logical fear of what could await him from his encounter with Hashem after death.
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