The fear of G-d! The thoughtful, contemplative person who sees G-d's wonders is astonished by the greatness of Him Whose word brought the world into being and embarrassed by his own insignificance. Fear takes hold of him – the fear of G-d. [King] Solomon said, “The fear of the L-rd is the beginning of knowledge”(Prov. 1:7). The beginning, the first essential element in a person's wisdom and knowledge, if he is to understand what his task is and where he is going, is the fear of G-d, vanquishing his ego and accepting G-d's yoke. If one merits this, the whole world is his. Otherwise, better he was never born. Without fear of G-d, wisdom is nothing but conceit and a tool to self-advancement. Even one's Torah lacks holiness, modesty and purity, and without these it is not Torah. Does G-d desire mere wisdom and brilliance in Torah? Does He need vain argumentation and polished, sophisticated explanations? Is not all wisdom His? Just as He has no need of candle light, so has He no need of the Torah scholar's wisdom. As our sages said (Shemot Rabbah 36:2), “It is not that I need you. Rather, shower light upon Me the way I showered light upon you.” In just the same way, G-d does not need the Torah, yet He gave it to mortal men for their own good so they would subdue their egos and cling to Him. Hence, if there is no fear of G-d, the Torah becomes mere wisdom, and better that man should not study it.
It is impossible to lead a sinless life without the fear of G-d. It therefore says (Lev. 19:14), “Fear your G-d. I am the L-rd.” Fear is the purest element there is and it naturally guarantees the absence of sin. Such is the intent of Psalms 19:10: “The fear of the L-rd is pure; it stands firm forever.” Fear, dread and reverence bind a person so he does not sin. How difficult it is to acquire the fear of G-d! Man's arrogance and evil impulse incite him to distance himself from that trait. For this reason, before R. Yochanan ben Zackai passed away, he blessed his students as follows (Berachot 28b), “May it be G-d's will that as much fear of Heaven be upon you as fear of mortal man.” His students then asked, “Is that all?” and he responded, “You should be so fortunate as to achieve just this! Consider that when people sin they say, 'I hope no one sees me' [i.e., they do not fear G-d, Who sees all.]” Our sages had the same intent when they said (Sotah 3a), “No person sins without suffering first a flash of insanity.” After all, any sane person will recoil from committing any sin, for G-d can see him! Would anyone sane steal, smite or murder while a policeman is standing by? Thus, if someone who believes in G-d still sins, it can only be that at that moment his thinking processes were so clouded and his selfishness and lust so overwhelmed him that he dared to sin under G-d's gaze. It is, thus, quite important that a person always set G-d or one of the commandments before him. This is fundamental to fearing G-d. If someone envisions a commandment before him, it is as though he sees the One Who commanded it. How can he not tremble with fear?
“I set the L-rd ever before me” (Ps. 16:8): This verse [...] Rama saw as appropriate to insert at the very beginning of Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 1:1): “Setting G-d ever before you” is an exceedingly important principle of the Torah and of those saintly individuals who walk before G-d. The way a person sits and moves and behaves at home alone is not the way he sits and moves and behaves before a great king... And when he notices that G-d, the Supreme King, Whose glory fills the earth, stands over him and sees his deeds... how much more so will he be filled with reverence and humility out of his fear and constant shame before G-d. Envisioning G-d constantly in one's presence serves to magnify one's fear of Him. Without such fear, man has no hope, and that is why G-d requires it. (Berachot 33b): “Everything is in G-d's hands but the fear of G-d: 'And now, Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d require of you but to fear Him' (Deut. 10:12).” Whoever examines the entire verse will see that it continues, “To walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and all your soul.” In other words, these last achievements are fulfilled through the fear of G-d. Without such fear, one cannot possibly achieve holiness, for one's ego will always take control.
That same faith in G-d which leads us to fear Him, and subsequently to modesty, lowliness and self-effacement, ultimately leads man to recognize G-d's greatness, omnipotence and omniscience. It creates in us the desire and longing to serve G-d wholeheartedly, to emulate Him and to be with Him always. Such longing is called Ahavat Hashem, the love of G-d. Fearing G-d, without which man cannot merit holiness of purity, is itself a prerequisite to loving Him, the second stage of man's spiritual growth as he proceeds to accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven. Loving G-d is a more exalted stage, as our sages said (Sotah 31a), “One motivated by love for G-d is greater than one motivated by fear.” Fear ensures man's separating himself from evil, making it infinitely easier for him later on to attain reward. As King David said, “Turn away from evil and do good” (Ps. 34:15). Fear of G-d distances man from evil, whereas love of G-d ensures that he will do good, out of desire and craving for G-d and His commandments. The more a person ponders G-d's wonders and examines the truth of His attributes and moral code, the more he will understand how much wisdom and truth are contained in them and the more there will grow within him a love for the Master, Who is all goodness, kindness and mercy. This is Israel's task, in love and joy, longing and desire, to bring the world to recognize G-d's majesty and sovereignty, the Divine greatness of His attributes and moral code, His laws and statutes.
Even so, just as the Torah spoke in human terms, so did G-d create human love. While such love cannot be compared to love for G-d, still, as far as man is concerned, such love is so fierce that it contains within it a slight hint of what we are commanded to feel toward G-d. As the Rambam said (Hilchot Teshuvah 10:3): What is befitting love for G-d? It must be so enormous and fierce that it bends man's soul to G-d. A man can be so lovesick for a woman that he is never free of his infatuation for her, whether he is at home, going out, getting up in the morning or eating. Our love for G-d must be greater even than that. We must be ravished with this love constantly, as G-d commanded us, with all our heart and soul. As King Solomon said (Song of Songs 2:5), “I am lovesick.” All of Song of Songs was a metaphor for man's love of G-d. Rabbi Akiva likewise said, “The whole universe never had as much justification to exist as the day Song of Songs was given to Israel. While all the Writings are holy, Song of Songs is holy of holies” (Yadayim 3:5). The reason for this is both profound and clear: The greatest love that man can fathom is that between man and woman, in which the man is ravished and lovesick on her account.
Ultimately, that love will be so fierce and profound that it will capture his spirit and soul. It will be a love of true devotion, as it says, “To love the L-rd your G-d, to hearken to His voice and to cling to Him” (Deut. 30:20). [As Rabbi Kahane put it in “Why be Jewish?” p. 179]: This is how a Jew who knows G-d prays: “Thou art the Flame and I the straw – and who should have mercy upon the straw if not the Flame? Thou art Pure, and I am sinful – and who should have mercy upon the sinful if not the Pure? Thou art the Supporter and I the falling one – and who should have mercy upon the falling one if not the Supporter? Thou art the Shepherd and I the flock...” The words of the Jew who looks to the real G-d and who daily whispers: I believe, I believe, I believe ... I know!”
We certainly cannot achieve the infiniteness of the love with which we were commanded, over and over, to love G-d: “Love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might” (Deut. 6:5). We must actually love Him “with all our soul.” As our sages said (Sifri, Va'etchanan 32), “Even if He takes your soul.” [How far this ultimate love goes we can learn from] Berachot 61b: When Rabbi Akiva was taken out to be executed [for teaching Torah in public, against a Roman decree], it was time to recite the Shema, and as they raked his flesh with iron rakes, he recited it. His students asked him, “Master! Does one's duty extend that far?” and he responded, “All my life I agonized over the verse, 'Love the L-rd your G-d... with all your soul' (Deut. 6:5), which means we must love G-d even if He takes our soul. I said, 'When will I have the opportunity to fulfill this?' Now that the opportunity has arisen, shall I not fulfill it?”
To bend the knee and bow the head and accept the Divine yoke, as one does “good” unto humanity in the way that the Almighty commanded – and then appreciate and hold Him in awe and love Him in a totality of body and soul. That is the purpose of man. [Rabbi Kahane in “Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews”].
Compiled by Tzipora Liron-Pinner from 'The Jewish Idea' of Rabbi Meir Kahane, HY"D, with brief excerpts from "Why be Jewish" and "Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews".