Monday, September 29, 2008

Yirat Shamayim - Fear of Heaven

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom today is an ‘I’ll never, ever, ever, possibly ever get everything done I’m supposed to do before Yom Tov’ sort of day. Perhaps the best solution is to concede that it’s true, and then relax, hoping that, though I may forget things, I won’t forget people.

I promised to write about yirat shamayim, the fear of heaven.

In traditional Jewish theology fear of heaven is the partner of love of heaven, only it’s the unpopular member of the pair. Rabbi Louis Jacobs lamented that modern theologians tend to ignore it altogether. Yet it’s a deeply important - I was going to say ‘concept’, - but I should say feeling. The higher aspect of fear of heaven is called by the mystics yirat harommemut, awe before the exalted divine presence. Maimonides describes it as the impulse of humility, of withdrawal almost, before the experience of great wonder. It might be associated, for example, with the stillness we feel as we reach the summit of a mountain and see the majestic view unfold before us, rock, precipice, forest, sky and distant sea. For a moment something so vast invades our heart that we are silenced, lost in the presence of incomparably greater being. But here is a moment when the poet Rilke finds such awe in something very small:

I found you
One time…
You are a fledgling with yellow claws
And big eyes, and it hurts to see you so.
(My hand is far too broad for you.)
And I take with my fingers a drop from the spring.
I strain to see if you will take it with gaping beak.
I feel your heart throbbing and my own heart, too,
And both from fright.

The wonder of life has settled in the poet’s palm. We can appreciate the tiny bird’s terror. But the man, being so much stronger, why should he be afraid? Maybe it is the awe of such an unexpected encounter which overwhelms him. Or maybe it is the feeling of deep tenderness towards this little, fragile life, which he desperately hopes not to hurt. This reminds me of a Hasidic explanation of the meaning of yirat shamayim: it is what we experience when we care so much and are frightened lest we should ever inadvertently bring pain to the one whom we so deeply love.

I hope our hearts are stirred by such awe and that it touches our prayers with its wonder.

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