It’s become a rather ubiquitous experience. You walk up to someone’s home and ring the bell. As you wait for a response, you notice that they have a video Ring, and you know you’re being watched. What do you do while you’re waiting? Most people try their best to nonchalantly look causal and cool. But there’s no escaping that feeling of being stuck there while you know you’re being videoed.
During the weeks of the COVID pandemic, I went to my students’ homes one Erev Shabbos to deliver potato kugel that my wife had made. It was an excuse to see them, if even from a distance. I pulled up to one home and got out of my car to hand it to my student. I saw my student and his brother and father pointing excitedly. I thought they were joking until they started screaming “Your car!” I turned around to see my car slowly inching towards their dining room window. It seems that the driver, who will remain nameless, remembered to put on his mask and gloves, but must have forgotten to put the car in park. I quickly ran, jumped into the car, and stopped it in time. The worst part was that the whole ordeal was clearly captured on their Ring. (The Zimermans will be more than happy to show it to you.)
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, quipped that “A Jew should always feel that G-d is looking over his shoulder. If a person feels that way, it’ll save him from a lot of trouble. All the articles in the newspapers that report indictments, and everything lawyers make millions of dollars off of, is because people forget G-d for a moment.”
We refer to that sense of awareness as yir’as Shamayim. One fears Heaven by being conscious of the fact that Heaven is viewing and recording his deeds and actions. This is not to say that Heaven is watching us to condemn us when we fall short. Rather, Heaven is cheering us on, hoping that we will live up to our potential and be the great people we are capable of becoming.
On the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh, we recite a passionate prayer in which we beseech Hashem to grant us life. We ask for a life of blessing, livelihood, vigor, etc. Curiously, there is one thing we ask for twice: “A life that has in them fear of Heaven and fear of sin… life that there is within us love of Torah and fear of Heaven.” There are various explanations offered about why we ask for fear of Heaven twice.
Rabbi Asher Weiss notes that it is clear to him that the real answer to the question has to do with a misplaced comma. Rabbi Weiss is emphatic that, in fact, we do not request fear of Heaven twice. The second request is not for “love of Torah, and fear of Heaven,” as if they are two separate commodities. Rather, we ask Hashem to grant us a life wherein we feel a love both of Torah and fear of Heaven. In other words, we are asking Hashem to help us love being G-d-fearing Jews.
Rabbi Weiss continues that the reason this true explanation is not commonly known is because most people don’t think of fear of Heaven as something one can love. Most people view it as a necessary challenge. Most people think that training oneself to recognize that G-d is always watching his every action is an unpleasant reality we have to live with. But the truth is that being G-d-fearing should not be overbearing and unpleasant. One merely needs to look at the state of morality, or the lack thereof, in western society to see what happens when there is a lack of awareness of G-d. It’s reminiscent of the timeless words of Avraham Avinu who told Avimelech that he wasn’t candid about his beautiful wife’s identity “because I said only that there is no fear of G-d in this place, and (therefore) they will kill me regarding the matter of my wife” (B’reishis 20:11).
We don’t merely ask to fear Heaven. We ask that Hashem help us appreciate the virtue of living such a noble life with an awareness of G-d constantly. Our greatest Torah leaders, who epitomize such a life, are princes of noble character, loving and beloved, exuding goodness and examples of humanity at its finest. That virtue and nobility is the direct result of the fact that they are G-d-fearing and live with an awareness of G-d in their lives.
The more fear of Heaven we inculcate in our lives, the greater we become as individuals and as a society.
The ultimate place where one was able to glean that sense of fear of Heaven was in the Beis HaMikdash. When a Jew entered its confines, he became hyper-aware that he was in G-d’s Presence. When one would witness the kohanim performing the avodah with vigilance and alacrity, hear the harmonized singing of the Leviim, and see the awesome structure of the Beis HaMikdash, it left an indelible impression upon him. It was when people stopped feeling that sense of awe from the Beis HaMikdash that Hashem caused it to be destroyed.
One of the challenges of exile and not having a Beis HaMikdash is the lack of that added sense of awareness of Hashem in the world.
At the conclusion of Sh’moneh Esrei, we daven that Hashem will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash “and there we will serve You with awe.” Although the Beis HaMikdash was a place where one could and should also discern love of Hashem for His nation, our prayer is to merit back the awe that we lack without the Beis HaMikdash and its avodah.
It is an ongoing struggle for us to maintain that sense of awareness that Hashem is with us constantly and is always “looking over our shoulder.” With the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash very soon, we will once again have that omnipresent feeling of connection with Hashem. And when that awareness returns what a different world it will be - a world without pain and suffering. It will be a world of kindness, selflessness, and holiness.