Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah would say: If there is no Torah, there is no common decency; if there is no common decency, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of G‑d; if there is no fear of G‑d, there is no wisdom. If there is no applied knowledge, there is no analytical knowledge; if there is no analytical knowledge, there is no applied knowledge. If there is no sustenance, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no sustenance. (Avot 3:17)
Last week, we saw Rav Chaninah ben Dosa’s linkage of chochmah to yirah. Yirah is wisdom’s first principle and needs to precede it in order for wisdom to be sustainable. Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah reaffirms this (earlier) statement of Rav Chaninah and adds a linkage in the opposite direction as well. Just as chochmah depends on yirah, so yirah hinges on chochmah. Wisdom is important not just as an independent value but also as a condition for yirah.
Earlier in Avot (2:5), Rabban Gamliel expresses this idea by asserting that “a brute cannot fear sin.” A person who lacks wisdom cannot properly appreciate G-d’s place in the world and the significance of defying His Will.
Sefer Mishlei goes even further by presenting chochmah as a prerequisite for yirah that needs to precede it in order to facilitate it (Mishlei 2:1-5). Only once a person has achieved wisdom can he “understand Yirat Elokim and attain knowledge of G-d.”
Who’s On First?
Chochmah as a prerequisite to yirah seems to contradict Rav Chaninah’s opposite portrayal of yirah as a pre-condition for chochmah. Which one precedes the other – yirah or chochmah? Rav Chaninah emphasizes the importance of yirah preceding chochmah, while the verse in Mishlei emphasizes the need for chochmah to precede yirah.
This question also emerges from the Gemara in Shabbat 31a, which presents statements that support both directions. The Gemara first quotes Rabbah Bar Rav Huna, who compares someone who learns Torah but lacks Yirat Shamayim to a treasurer who possesses keys to the treasury’s inner chamber but not its outer doors. We cannot achieve chochmah without having yirah first.
On the very next line, the Gemara quotes Rav Yannai, who compares the same person to one who erects an entranceway to a courtyard that does not exist. While Rabbah saw yirah as the door through which one enters the world of chochmah, Rav Yannai sees yirah as the end goal to which chochmah leads. Which is the entry and which is the goal?
Levels of Yirah
The Abarbanel (Devarim 10:12), and later the Gra (Sefer Mishlei 16:34) and the Ba’al Hatanya (Likutei Amarim Ch. 43), all explain that there are different types and levels of yirat Shamayim. The process of yirah and chochmah is meant to begin with one type of yirah and ultimately facilitate a second, higher type of yirah.
On the most basic level, yirah means fear. One should fear sin because one fears Hashem and His potential punishment. We find yirah used this way in Bereishit to describe Yitzchak’s fear of the Plishtim killing him to take his wife ((Bereishit 26:7) and Yaakov’s fear of Eisav (Bereishit 32:12). Accordingly, the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, Asei 4) defines the mitzvah of Yirat Shamayim (Devarim 6:13) as fearing Hashem and His punishment.
Yirah also means awe. For example, the Torah describes Yaakov as having yirah when he awoke in the morning after his vision of the ladder and the angels (Bereishit 28:17). He was not afraid, but rather in awe of the place and Hashem’s presence there.
Stages of Yirah
These two meanings of yirah are obviously very different levels. The young or uneducated, who are not able to fully appreciate the awesomeness of Hashem’s presence, are taught to fear Him (Mishneh Torah L’Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 10:1). Experience and education help people gain a better appreciation of, and reach a level of awe towards, Hashem. This better appreciation is rooted in wisdom.
The Rambam develops this idea in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2, where he teaches that in addition to belief in Hashem, we are required to feel love and yirah towards Him. The question, though, is how can one develop emotional feelings towards someone they have never met? The Rambam explains that we get there by appreciating Him through studying His world.
This higher form of yirah is the one with ultimate significance. It was Hashem’s goal in creation (Shabbat 31a) and the ultimate goal of our personal development (Sefer Ha’Ikarim 3:31). G-d does not seek our fear; He seeks our appreciation.
Yirah is, thus, both a necessary backdrop to chochmah and also its beneficiary. An initial fear of Hashem inspires us to take learning, wisdom and life seriously. The learning and wisdom achieved in turn facilitates a higher level of yirah.
Rashi (Yoma 72b) has a powerful way of linking the two types of yirah and the stages of development. He explains that because wisdom’s goal is yirah, it needs to be motivated by it. The direction our chochmah leads us in hinges on its roots and motivation. One who seeks wisdom as an expression of Hashem’s Will, will be inspired by it to appreciate Hashem even further.
An Integrated Cohesive Existence
At first glance, wisdom and yirah seem like unrelated aspects of our consciousness. The first is in the mind, while the second is of the heart. Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah teaches us that healthy personal development hinges on the integration of both. Yirah (which we often describe as faith) is where wisdom begins and is what ensures its proper direction and significance. At the same time, true faith is rooted in the wisdom that makes a meaningful appreciation of Hashem possible.