by Andy Oram
Fear is a recurring state that runs throughout life. These days, our fears increasingly hone in on environmental degradation. The drying up of aquifers, the threat of flooding that our major cities face through rising oceans, the disappearance of bees that keep the food chain going–such apocalypses outstrip almost everything we’ve feared in the past. Except for medieval plagues and nuclear war, nothing else in history can cause such legitimate fear as what we’re doing to the environment.
These facts engender toxic mental reactions that are sometimes termed eco-despair. This spiritual disorder is blamed not only for rage and depression but for denial, withdrawal, and inaction. When I regularly hear educated people say, “I really don’t know much about global warming,” I see eco-despair in action. There are plenty of ways to learn about this all-encompassing threat; the sufferers from eco-despair just can’t put themselves in a position to find out.
While the Tanach frequently addresses our fear of life’s ills and dangers, in the Psalms and elsewhere, it also talks mysteriously of fearing God. In plain language, the phrase seems to suggest that fear of punishment from the heavens provides us a strong motivation for acting rightly, but this obvious interpretation is odd and uncomfortable. It risks draining the joy from performing mitzvot. It could seem to weaken our love for God, as well as for life itself. Yet even Deuteronomy, a book famous for God’s expressions of love, repeatedly stresses the injunction to fear God.
Some readers try to massage the many references to the fear of God, substituting something gentler such as awe. The problem with this translation is that awe is less persuasive than fear as a reason to perform the commandments. But there is another way to squarely face fear of God.
The Zohar treats fear of God in depth, taking off particularly from Job 28:28, which starkly claims,”Fear of God, it is wisdom.” Fear of God may, according to Deuteronomy and elsewhere, lead us to follow the commandments, but how can it lead to wisdom? Even more strikingly, how can it be wisdom?
According to the Zohar, fear of God is itself a mitzvah. They distinguish it in the strongest terms from ordinary fears: our fear of losing a job, of flying in an airplane, of global warming. However, if the fear of what happens to us in this world is a distraction from fearing God, so is the fear of what happens to us in the world to come–the obvious, plain interpretation of the praise given to fear of God throughout the Tanach. (The world to come is mostly a later construct.) Fearing God’s punishment is just as bad as fearing an airplane crash. Both types of fear trap you in the shell of the commandments, so that you never reach the commandments’ root.
My interpretation of Job 28:28 and the Zohar is hard to articulate, but points to a way of handling ordinary fears and countering eco-despair. One has to take up all one’s fears–pack them up in your old kit-bag, to quote a classic song–and somehow convert them into the fear of God. By fearing God you harness the fear that leads to despair and inaction.
We do not know exactly what this kind of fearing God feels like, but it could very well be wisdom. When one succeeds in substituting the fear of God for everyday fear, perhaps the path to solutions will appear.
Fear is the reaction of a thinking person to the hazards of life. It comes naturally to anyone educated in the problems of Earth’s environment. We cannot ignore or repress the fears, but by converting them to fear of God we can turn them a mitzvah: an action taken to improve the world.
Earth Etudes for Elul are a project of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope.
Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O’Reilly Media, a leading media outlet in the computer field. He is also an activist in the Jewish Climate Action Network as well as other progressive political organizations, and a member of Temple Shir Tikvah of Winchester, Mass. Some of his writings can be found at http://praxagora.com/andyo/fiction.