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Six Constant Mitzvot-Zachor-Awe of God Toolbox Print E-mail

Purim-EstherTranscribed from a lecture recorded 7 March 2000 The Torah describes the attack of Amalek on the Jewish People: “…he happened upon you on the way, and he killed among you, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and tired, and you (or he) did not fear God.” It is fitting that in the week in which we will read that phrase, we will be learning this evening some practical tools for maintaining Awe of God.  To review, the first Mitzva Temidiah is to be aware that there is a God.  We are defining these as mitzvot of being.  The second  is to know that there is no other power other than God.  The third is that God is a unity, and last week we covered the fourth, the mitzva to love God.


In developing toolboxes for any of the six Mitzvot Temidiot, you will want to acquire those that  are useful for you.   If you don’t want to develop Love of God, then even ten million tools won’t be of any use.  These tools must be something that you want to have.  This is especially so in Awe of God than with any of the other six.  This is because with Awe of God, people naturally pretend to fight against having this awe.  I’m not talking about fear.  We are not talking about the fear that God is going to zap you if you do something wrong.

To be in awe of God means that there is a constant awareness that there is an awesome being, and feeling a sense of being less significant.  (I don’t know if you ever bumped into or met someone who made you feel awed.)

RSW: (Responding to a question) The awe that we are referring to is not someone saying to another, “I’m magnificent, and I know how to bully you.  You are now in awe of me.”  That is being intimidated.  It’s not that God is going out of His way to intimidate us.

When I met the Stipler Rav, I waited outside in a long line for hours.  There were scores of people waiting to see him.  People would go in for a blessing, or if someone was very sick.  But I wanted to see the Stipler.  I had met some biggies in my life.  It’s not that he was any more scholarly than anyone I had met.  I just hadn’t met him before.  As the line was moving, I was thinking about what to ask him for.  I walked into his study, and he had that big ear-horn.  You had to yell into the horn for him to hear you.  The minute I saw him, I couldn’t talk.  I wasn’t scared that he was going to beat me up.  I was ten times his size.  But I literally could not get a word out of my mouth.  There was such a feeling of greatness in that room that I was speechless. That’s awe.

RSW: (Responding to a question) Feeling insignificant is one of the things that I’m going to talk about this evening.  Feeling insignificant, by the way, doesn’t mean you don’t feel OK about yourself.  It’s all relative.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It depends how much you get into it.  Too much isn’t awe.

To have Awe of God, you have to be open to awe.  Anyone experience this?  To be in awe?  Were you ever in Yosemite National Park?  Awe is a kid meeting Michael Jordan.  But you have to want it.  If you don’t want it, you won’t have it.

So what is it?  It’s related to the word, Yir’ah, meaning ‘to see.’  But first, you must realize that, even more than the previous four mitzvot, there is an internal conflict within yourself to fight against it.  There is a stronger barrier against this mitzva than all others.  That is because people identify awe of God with feeling insignificant.  There are a number of reasons for this: One, it’s painful.  You feel insignificant.  Someone is bossing you around.  That’s not pleasure, that’s painful.

Second, it is limiting.  If I really accept being in awe of God, forget it.  Life’s not going to be any fun anymore!  What am I going to be able to do?  I will always be thinking about my insignificance.

Third, I lose my autonomy. And fourth, It’s degrading.  People have different ways of looking at it, but usually it is one of these four.


RSW: Then it’s not Yira’at Hashem. Yira’at Hashem means that you have such a deep awareness of God, you understand that you are nothing.

NS: That there is something bigger than me?

RSW: Bigger than me is included in the Love of God.  Awe is not just bigger, but infinitely bigger, so that I become insignificant.

DG: I don’t think a person can hold onto that for long.

RSW: That’s what the toolbox is for – to increase that time.

Q: But when you have this awe, don’t you lose a certain amount of Bechira, free choice?

RSW: You are misunderstanding the meaning of Bechira. You guys are giving me such a hard time tonight.  Do you realize you are?  It’s because you don’t want it!

MB: I think it is a problem for us to understand what awe really means.  We have a pre-conceived notion from the world outside.  We don’t know how to deal…

RSW: Really? I don’t think so.  Everyone…Nora has lots of awe.  The way you were defining awe is fantastic.

NS: Yes, but you were saying that is not awe.

RSW: No, I’m just saying that is not all of awe.  I’ll show it to you in the siddur, where you can actually use awe, the feeling of insignificance to acquire significance.  That’s where bechira comes in.  I’ll show you how.

So the first issue people have is that true awe is painful.  The opposite, of course, it to be comfortable.  Did you ever go to an amusement park?  Did you ever go on the roller-coaster?  Did you ride the roller-coaster to feel comfortable?  Or, to feel fear?  Why do you want to feel fear? – It’s a rush!

NS: Like para-sailing?

RSW: Yes.

MB: Did you do that?

RSW: Yeah.  I wanted to go bungee-jumping, but Debbie wouldn’t let me.  That was right after the first surgery!

So people actually pay to be terrorized!  So it’s not such a bad thing.  In other words, people understand that it is an exciting experience.

The second issue is that many people fear that Yira’at Hashem will limit them.  Have you ever heard of those stories when a mother sees her son, God forbid, hit by a truck, and she goes and lifts the truck up off her child?  So does fear limit, or does it give a person a rush of adrenaline?  Real Yira’at Hashem will make life more thrilling.  If you don’t feel that rush, then more work is necessary on  Yira’at Hashem. It’s an unbelievable idea.  You’re supposed to feel excited during davening. This is what it is all about.  With real Yira’at Hashem, you feel as if you can do anything.

The next issue is that you’re going to lose some autonomy.  Let me ask you something.  If you could feel free of your life patterns, that is patterns of behavior, is that losing autonomy?  If anything, you’re gaining.  Having Yira’at Hashem is actually a way of confronting you  is actually a way of confronting your Yetzer Hara head-on.  It gives you freedom from limits that we put on ourselves.  This, of course, has to do with the themes of Esther.

The last issue that we spoke of is that true awe is perceived to be degrading.  At some point, a person will say, “Ahh! This person is so great, and I am a nothing.”  This is because I’m not going to be able to walk around thinking I’m the greatest.  You know what?  That’s the reality!

My uncle always describes this feeling with a story.  You’re walking down a dark alley.  All of a sudden this dog comes out from the shadows, growling and roaring.  Which way do you turn? – The other way!  You turn around, but there’s a lion crouching for the spring.  Which way do you go? – You go back to the dog!  Better to face the dog than the lion!  You have to be willing to take on fears in order to improve.  It’s going to be tough.  You just have to realize which is the more important thing to fear.

Now I am going to discuss some practical tools.

If you like verses, whether they are from davening, or from elsewhere in Tanach, if they really touch you, make them part of your vocabulary.  I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but there are (especially in Yeshiva) some people who can quote a verse in response to any situation they find themselves in.  Write them down.  You’d be surprised how effective it is.  Put the verse in your toolbox.  How do you feel when the Shiliach Tzibbur reads Hineni during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  Make it part of the whole year.

Rambam says that Yir’ah will be a natural result of Ahava.  That is, as you learn about God, you will want to learn more.  As you learn more about God, you will realize how unbelievably unlimited God is, and you will feel more and more in awe of God.  By the way, National Geographic can also work for developing awe.  It’s not just the beauty of the pictures.  If you can say, “Wow! Awesome, man!”  That too, leads to greater awe.  Incidentally, that very expression, “Awesome!”, is a really great thing.

When Moses came down from Sinai for the second time, there were beams of light shining forth from his face.  The Jews were terrified.  So what did Moses do? – He put on a mask.  But whenever he taught Torah, he took off the mask.

MB: They had to be in awe?

RSW: Not just awe, they had to be terrified when they learnt.

Every time you open a sefer to learn, if you appreciate that this is Truth, that this comes from God, that these words that have been learnt by generations, and that these words are described by the Midrash as fire, then there has to be terror.  What happens when you open a letter from the IRS? So what would you feel if you opened up a letter from God?  Let’s make an accounting.  There has to be a sense of Yir’ah when you are learning.

Look at the bracha before reciting the Sh’ma: “Enlighten our eyes in your Torah, attach our hearts to your commandments, unify our hearts to love and fear your Name, so that we won’t be embarrassed eternally.” The next time you open up something to learn, stop for a second, and picture that this is something coming directly form the Creator of the world to you.  Last week when we spoke of the Love of God Toolbox, we looked at learning as reading a love letter.  With a love letter, you read it more than once, and you read it between the lines, etc.  Now picture learning as receiving a letter from the IRS, or any other letter you associate with dread.

I remember feeling this way when I was growing up.  I would see a note at home on the board addressed to my father, Rabbi Weinberg: ‘Call Rabbi Lipsker.’ He was my teacher.  I’d just take it down.

Try it.  On Shabbat, when you’re at shul and the Torah is being read, before one of the aliyot, picture a time when you received such a letter and you were terrified before you opened it.  (What’s going to be inside?)  Then listen carefully to the reading.

The absolute best tool to develop Yira’at Shamayim is never to speak Lashon Hara.  This is because the level of awareness that is demanded by not speaking it is so overwhelming, that it is impossible to adhere to those laws without strengthening Yira’at Shamayim. Just don’t.  Be constantly aware of the laws of Lashon Hara. They are overwhelming.  Because you find out that every little thing that you say may have some element of Lashon Hara in it.

There’s only one way to go about it.  Never speak about anyone, good or bad.  Seriously.

MB: But once you say that you say that, you’ll start speaking it like crazy.

RSW: You just said Lashon Hara about yourself!

Dr. Sonnenberg: I didn’t listen to him!

The laws of Lashon Hara demand constant awareness, which in of itself will develop  Yira’at Hashem. Yir’ah means awe, and it means fear.  It also means ‘to see.’  And if you are constantly seeing, it means ‘awareness.’  If you are examining every word you say, before you actually say it, you will develop Yira’at Hashem.

Where do you pray that you will not speak Lashon Hara?  At the end of the Shemoneh Esreh, in the final paragraph, we ask God to help us guard our tongue.  We do so here because if we have davened well, then we have experienced the power of using our mouths constructively.  We don’t want to ruin that.  If you ate a gourmet meal, would you shove filth in it?  In the Shemoneh Esreh, we just spoke with God.  We don’t want to sully it by speaking Lashon Hara. It’s really very simple.  If you want Awe of God, then don’t speak Lashon Hara. Even between a husband and wife.  You have to be very careful.  God-willing you should all have that problem!

The author of The Duties of the Heart writes that there are seven things a person should keep in mind before attempting to do Teshuva. (a) I sinned; (b) the sin was ugly, it was destructive; (c) there is a punishment for that sin; (d) the punishment is coming; (e) Teshuva heals everything; (f) God did all these wonderful things for me and this is how I paid Him back for it; (g) to change is the hardest thing in the world.  Keep those thoughts in mind before you say the bracha about Teshuva in the Shemoneh Esreh. If you prepare yourself for that bracha, you will develop Awe of God.  It’s a higher level of awareness.  You realize that it is very hard to change.  Therefore, we pray to God for help.

The Gemara compares Abraham with Moses and King David.  When he argued with God, Abraham said, “I am but dust and ashes.”  In other words, total humility.  Moses and Aaron say to the Jews (Exodus 15:7), “We are, what?” – How are they describing themselves? They are even less than dust.  King David speaks of himself a little better.  The Gemara says, Abraham was good, Moses was better, but David is best.  The reason David is best is because you have to say, “Yes, I am but dust and ashes, and I am a nothing.”  But a king cannot say that he is a nothing.  A king must say that he is a something.  Not great, but something.  The idea is that on the way to becoming something, you must first be a nothing.

Did I tell you about my father’s zt”l first conversation with Debbie (RWS’s wife)? No? Here I am a nervous wreck.  We’ve driven down to Baltimore and sitting at my parents’ house.  I was terrified.  My father and Debbie spoke for about 10-15 minutes and then my father got up to go to the Yeshiva to give a shiur.  So far, so good.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  Then, Debbie turns to my father and says, “We drive down here for three hours, and have to drive back three more, just for 10 minutes with the famous Rabbi Weinberg?”

I’m shivering.  So they go into the study, close the door, and begin their conversation.  All of a sudden I hear my father screaming, “You are a nothing!  You are a nothing!”  I say to myself, “Oh my God! What did she say to him?  I don’t want to fight him on this.  What am I going to do?” I’m thinking, “She’ll never want to talk to me again.”  I’m hiding.  I say to my mother, “You’ve got to protect me!”  Forty-five minutes later, they walk out of the study with smiles on their faces.  I ask Debbie, “What was going on in there?”  She says, “Oh, he was just teaching me about Hashkafah!” They had an interesting relationship.

The prayer Modeh Ani is a great tool to put in your toolbox.  It says, thank you for restoring my soul.  While I was sleeping You had my soul in your hands.  Or, the prayer, Elohai Neshama – the soul that You put in me is pure.  Even if all you say in the morning is Modeh Ani without the rest of the davening, that is a good effort to developing Awe of God.  Another bracha is Mechaye HaMetim – He who restores life to the dead.  That’s a pretty awesome thing!

If you’ve ever experienced a number of different things happening all at once, coming together in a way that you’ve never imagined, you respond, “Wow! Somebody’s in charge here!”  Kind of like a guy from Ner Yisrael marrying a girl from Argentina!

The Gemara says that a Talmid Chacham who does not allow a student to serve him prevents the student from developing Yira’at Shamayim. This idea is played out in a Gemara in the Talmud Yerushalmi.  Rabbi Akiva was traveling and in the middle of nowhere he came upon a dead body.  This is a case of a Met Mitzva.  He carried the body for four miles to the nearest Jewish cemetery, and buried it there.  He then went to his rebbe and told him what happened.  His rebbe said, “Don’t you know that when you find a dead body, you have to bury it where you found it?”  This is Rabbi Akiva we’re talking about!  Not just any Tom, Dick, or Harry!  At that moment, Rabbi Akiva made a commitment to spend the next year serving his teacher as a way of developing his Awe of Heaven and acquire an awareness from him that he wouldn’t have otherwise.

At your wedding (addressing Mrs. Chana-chaya Klein), someone who was close with my grandfather came over to talk with me.  He said that one of the most powerful moments that he remembers about my grandfather is when he picked him up at home for Selichot one early morning at 5:30 to walk him to shul. They started walking out the door, and all of a sudden, my grandfather stopped, turned around, ran into the house (actually, he didn’t run to well)and pulled out a placemat.  He then took out a glass, filled the glass with orange juice, and then put the OJ back into the fridge.  My grandfather then turned to him and said, “If you can’t remember to do this for your wife, then Selichot aren’t worth anything.”

This is something that you can only get by spending time with a Talmid Chacham. I spent a long time doing some of these things.  I can tell you hundreds of stories.  I did this once at Esh Hatorah. I gave a two-and-a-half hour talk on what it was like growing up with great Rabbanim. I told story after story.  As I did, I realized they had no idea what it was like.  Living it made all the difference in the world.

Another tool is to practice awe on your parents (those of us who merit still having parents).  For example, never sit down in your parents chair.  Never argue with your parents.  I know with regard to my father, no one ever thought to sit down in his seat.  It was incomprehensible.  At the Shabbat table, somebody once said to him, “No!”  Everyone at the table was in shock.  It happened to be in the middle of a discussion in learning, but nevertheless, everyone was silent.  No one had ever heard that .  (My mother, yes!)  If your parents are still living, use it as an opportunity to develop awe.  Pull out their chair for them.  Say that you would like to serve them – “Perhaps mother would like…”

Exercise awe when you are in shul. Do not talk while in shul. Dress differently when in shul. Act differently when in shul. This is practicing awe.  By the way,  I don’t mean this as a joke, but when you walk into a room where there is learning going on, treat that room with greater respect.  If there are sefarim in the room, the space also deserves greater respect.  These are all basic tools.

Did you know that there are Halachot which cover how one goes to the bathroom?  For example, how much do you uncover?  How do you clean yourself?  You don’t use your right hand, because that’s the hand you wrap your Tefillin with.  The mitzva is to tie it, and that mitzva is accomplished with the right hand.  That is awareness.  Why can’t I use that hand?  Because I do a mitzva with it.  That’s developing awe.

The siddur is another tool for developing awe.  Listen to this.  This is what we say in the morning.  This was always…especially when you’re depressed, this was a great way to start the morning!

“Always let a person be God-fearing privately and publicly.  Acknow-ledge the truth, speak the truth within his heart, rise early and proclaim, ‘master of all worlds, and Lords of all lords, not in the merit of our righteousness we cast out our supplications before You, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy.  What are we?  What is our life?  What is our kindness?  What is our righteousness?  What is our salvation?  What is our strength?  What is our might? What can we say before you God of our forefathers?  Are not the heroes like nothing before you?  The famous are as they never existed?  The wise as if devoid of wisdom? And the perceptive as if devoid of intelligence?  Most of their deeds are desolate and the days of their lives are empty before you.  Preeminence of man over beast is nonexistent for all is vain.”

Isn’t that a nice way to start the day?  I remember saying to my father during moments of severe depression, feeling like I didn’t want to say it.  He said, “I don’t understand.  Where’s the problem?  Read the next line: “Except for the pure soul that is destined to give justification and reckoning before the throne of Your glory.”  So if you appreciate that which is truly important you will have to give judgement.  You go from “I am nothing,” and appreciate that that is the insignificance.   Then you understand that your significance comes only from God.  How you treat that which comes from God is what matters.  That’s where the significance is.

There is a Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Ki Tetzeh with regard to the story of Amalek. The verse reads, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” The Midrash says that the Torah also says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The Torah uses the word ‘remember’ in both verses.  But it doesn’t really make sense that it should be that way.  The Midrash compares this to a king who made a huge feast for all his subjects.  He brings out trays and trays of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, potato chips, cashews, soda, and all the other great foods of the world.  Everyone is excited to eat.  But before anyone digs in, the king proclaims that he wants everyone to remember his friend so-and-so.  Everyone eats so heartily that there’s nothing left.  At this point the king proclaims that everyone should remember his enemy.

The Chasidim say like this.  A human being has to use two strategies.  Either, “The whole world was created for me” or, “I am a nothing.”  Amalek, however, wants to take a human being who is vulnerable, who has failed, who is weak in certain areas, who has sinned, and says to that person, “You’re no good, you’re never going to make it back.”  Amalek, if you recall, attacked the people who were outside the clouds.  Why were they outside the clouds?  Either because they were impure, or because they had sinned.  Those are the people who have to say, “The world was created for me.”  True Yira’at Shamayim will come to the one who knows how to balance the two.

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