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To dedicate this lesson

Just Fear of Heaven? It Depends When


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

"Now, Israel, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you, just to fear Hashem, your G-d, to follow all His ways and to love Him and serve Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and all your soul" (Devarim 10:12). The gemara (Berachot 33b) questions the most surprising part of this pasuk: Is the demand so small that Moshe would say "just"? The gemara says that from Moshe’s perspective it was a small thing. That answer begs a follow-up question: wasn’t Moshe aware that this was not so simple for other people?
Yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven) is the main thing that is not in Hashem’s Hands, but in our own (ibid.). One can then ask: how we can ask in Birkat Hachodesh, "Give us life that contains fear of Heaven and fear of sin" if it is not up to Him?
Before Moshe got up to our pasuk that captures the essence of Judaism, he reviewed Bnei Yisrael’s recent history, with its miracles and crises, along with commandments to remember and not to forget what they had seen (see Devarim 7:18; ibid. 8:18). These commands to remember come in two contexts: before the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, when the people could ask how they would succeed; after the success is realized, when people are liable to claim, "My strength and the power of my hand" were responsible. The solution in both cases is to remember. Indeed, the greatest foe of Judaism is forgetting; one who remembers believes and sees. Upon seeing Hashem’s involvement in the past, he does not fear the future and knows how to attribute the success correctly. This is true throughout history. In both times when Hashem’s face is hidden from us and in times when it shines upon us, we must consider the lessons of the past and recognize Hashem’s Providence.
Let us return to answer the questions. At the time of great success, for example, at the time Moshe was speaking, when the people had recently witnessed many miracles and were on the verge of entering the Land, it was relatively easy to fear Hashem. One can see that Hashem "makes battles, has great strength, and is the master of wonders," that He observes all, and arranges all. When terrible events occur, which make one wonder how Hashem could have allowed them to happen, it is difficult to honestly say, "All of this befell us and we did not forget You or belie Your covenant" (Tehillim 44:18).
When we ask for "life that contains fear of Heaven" we are asking for successful times when basic fear of Hashem is easier to come by. While it is always ultimately up to us, we pray that we will not be tested with times when it is harder to accomplishment it.
Chazal speak of a year that is poor in its beginning and rich at its end (Rosh Hashana 16b). This year (5708= 1947-8) was such a year. We began the year like paupers at the doorway, wondering "how will we be able to acquire [the Land]." Miraculously, we did! We received the "life that contains fear of Heaven." Now it is our responsibility to put things in perspective and remember that it is Hashem who gave us the strength to succeed, and use this outlook to reach yirat shamayim under conducive circumstances.
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