A reflection on the weekly Torah portion.
Love and awe: the religious mind is bent toward God in these two ways. A remark in Nachmanides’s introduction to Deuteronomy (Nachmanides was a 13th-century Catalonian Talmudist and philosopher) and a close reading of this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11) show how love, or something close to love, can purify awe of both an impulse toward paralysis and an impulse toward self-hatred.
Deuteronomy starts with Moses’s narrative of Israel’s national life. His audience is the Exodus generation’s children. The parents were faithless and then condemned to wander and die before entering the promised land. The present Hebrews have all been reared free under God’s nourishment and protection. No generation before or after is better qualified to reject the fleshpots of Egypt and trust God out of the desert. To rouse Israel’s faith with fright, guilt, and gratitude, Moses spends several chapters reacquainting the assembled with Israel’s frequent sinfulness and God’s many wonders.
The rehearsal of sins, Nachmanides writes, introduces a reminder of God’s mercy. What worried Moses, he suggests, was the possibility of Israel refusing to exit the desert oasis. The Hebrews might believe that only perfect men could claim the Lord’s bequest of a sanctified civilization. Much safer to live unmolested by the chances for sin found in cities, commerce, politics, and war.
Israel could cower from insufficient regard for God’s power, or from regarding only God’s power and not also his mercy. God is both father and king, and though the order be disobeyed, he is, writes Nachmanides, “full of mercy, from Whom pardon and forgiveness come.” If men thought clearly and only of God’s justice, Nachmanides suggests, they’d be too terrified to move. A true response, perhaps—“if our iniquities remained with you, oh Lord, who could stand?” (Psalms 130:3)—but psychologically insufficient for our task in this world, which is to strive with and not despite the fear of heaven. The promise of God’s grace warms our frightened hearts, converting fear into a productive alacrity.
In Deuteronomy 5, Moses rehearses the Decalogue, then recounts that,
Upon hearing the voice from the dark, while the mountain burned in fire, all your chieftains and elders approached me. They said, “the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His majesty; His voice we have heard from the fire, and today we have seen that man lives though God speaks to him. And now we shall die, consumed by this great fire? If we again hear the voice of the Lord our God, we shall die. For what flesh ever heard the voice of the living God speak from the fire, as we have done, and lived?”
The elders ask Moses to represent them to the Lord, to which the Lord replies, “I have heard the voice of this people that spoke to you; well have they spoken. Let them always be of such a heart, to fear me and to keep my commandments all their days, that it should be well with them and their children forever.”
The elders are shocked that the Eternal One is concerned with the affairs of—even demands things of—flesh and blood. Our choices are not, on the one hand, seventy years of sensuality and decency followed by oblivion, and on the other, ecstasy and death in God’s glory. A finite life of infinite duty is the terrifying third option—hearing and then having to remember God’s voice. The elders of Israel, Nachmanides explains, declined to encounter God face to face again lest they find the encounter overwhelming, while faithfully accepting the instructions of Moses and his prophetic successors. The Lord is pleased with Israel’s longing—hungry for the Divine mission, fearful of the Divine presence.
But what if Israel’s desire hadn’t alloyed their awe? What if fealty hadn’t followed the elders’ initial response, “today we have seen that man lives though God speaks to him”? God revealed his grandeur but neither grace nor love nor mercy. The elders were already receptive to God’s covenantal offer. They must have longed for the very thing of which they’re now afraid, or else their acceptance is inexplicable. What if, having witnessed God’s overwhelming power, the Hebrews had protested that they would not serve, precisely because all they knew was God’s overwhelming power, and therefore knew that they could only ever be junior partners with God? True rebellion is only available to someone who has met God. Atheism can be interpreted charitably as “just getting the facts wrong,” and many atheists would gladly be theists. The problem of divine hiddenness is as vexing as the problem of evil. But the devil is a theist par excellence. He denies Divine sovereignty after knowing the Divine presence.
The rebel against God does not misunderstand the world, but hates it, its order, and especially his place somewhere other than its apex. Saying “no” to God is a form of self-hatred. Its logical conclusion is suicide—unable to destroy the world, the rebel removes himself from it. Unable to abide what he sees, he shuts his eyes for good.
It is conceivable that Israel could have decided the heavenly mandate was intolerable, as numerous others—both human and divine—have found it intolerable. Having learned what it all means, the Hebrews might have despised their new knowledge. Sooner than sacrifice their independence, they could have spurned its source.
The Heavenly Absconder, having everything himself, demanding everything of us, is either miraculously loving or unconscionably cruel. Fear of heaven decoupled from love of heaven can be, alas, perverted into the latter judgment.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.