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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
In preparing the Children of Israel for the conquest of the land of Canaan, Moshe anticipates the people’s trepidation, and he promises Hashem’s ongoing support:
Perhaps you might say in your heart, "These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?" You shall not be afraid (lo tira) of them. You shall surely remember that which Hashem, your God, did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt: The great tests which your eyes saw, and the signs and the wonders, and the strong hand, and the outstretched arm whereby Hashem, your God, brought you out–so will Hashem, your God, do to all the nations before whom you are afraid (yarei). Furthermore, Hashem, your God, will release the hornet against them, until the destruction of those who are left and those who hide themselves before you. You shall not be intimidated/frightened (lo ta’arotz) before them, because (ki) Hashem, your God, is in your midst, a God Who is mighty and feared (nora) (Devarim 7:17-21).
Moshe is trying to assure the people that they have no reason to fear the inhabitants of the land in the upcoming wars, because Hashem will defend them just as He did in Egypt. So, why is He described as "a God Who is mighty and feared?" Would it not have been more comforting to hear that Hashem is caring and protective?
Haketav V’hakabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Meklenburg, 1785-1865), quoting Rabbi Yehudah Leib Margaliot (1747-1811), head of the bet din (rabbinic court) in his birthplace Lesslau, explains that fear of Hashem is different from any other feeling we have towards Him. For example, one may fully honor, love and be grateful to other people, with no diminution of the honor, love and gratitude that are due to Hashem. This is not, however, the case when it comes to fear of Hashem, which is lessened by the fear of others, as we shall elucidate.
(Of course, the Torah teaches us to revere our parents and our teachers, and it uses the same word, yir’ah, for both. However, these are forms of reverence that are commanded precisely because they develop one’s fear of Heaven; they certainly do not compete with it.)
The idea of the preeminence of the fear of Hashem is demonstrated in the exchange cited in the Talmud (Berachot 28b) between Rabbi Yochanan ben-Zakkai and his students while the sage lay on his deathbed. The students asked their teacher to bless them, and his blessing was: "May it be His will, that your fear of Heaven be as much as your fear of flesh-and-blood." And when his students asked, "No more than that?" he replied, "Would that it were as much as that! For you know that when a person is about to sin, he first thinks, ‘I hope no person sees me.’ One’s awe of Hashem must supersede all else."
What does it truly mean to "fear" Hashem? It denotes being aware constantly of His greatness, and of the fact that nothing escapes His sight. It means that our awe and fear of Hashem should supersede all other apprehension and nothing else–neither embarrassment nor power, neither pain nor death–should frighten us. Thus, the fear of anyone or anything other than Hashem detracts from the fear one ought to have for the Almighty.
Actually, the essence of this observation of Haketav V’hakabbalah is to be found in the brief comment of the Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) on the words, "You shall not be intimidated/frightened before them:"
Be frightened only of Hashem, Who is "a God Who is mighty and feared." Only the fear of the Almighty is a fear to be cultivated.
Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century) develops this idea still further. First, it is important to note the different words for fear used in this passage: y-r-a and ‘a-r-tz. Earlier in Devarim (1:29), Malbim differentiates between these two terms. He states that: y-r-a is fear that focuses on the other’s power; while ‘a-r-tz is fear generated by a feeling of one’s own weakness and inadequacy.
We can apply this distinction to our passage, as well. At first, the people might be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the nations, which would result in yir’ah. But, they are told, do not be awestruck by their prowess: Perhaps you might say in your heart, "These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?" You shall not be afraid (lo tira) of them.
After all, Egypt’s superior numbers and might were no match for Hashem. In the same manner, "so, will Hashem, your God, do to all the nations before whom you are afraid" (yarei). When you call this to mind, not only will you not be terrified by them (y-r-a); you will not even feel inferior to them: You shall not be intimidated/frightened (lo ta’arotz) before them.
Finally, it would seem that Malbim has a different understanding of the word ki in verse 21, translating it as "when" instead of "because": You will not be intimidated/ frightened before them,–ki–when [you realize that] Hashem, your God, [Who] is in your midst, [is] a God Who is mighty and feared.
Your fear of Hashem will enable you to overcome your fear of them. By way of analogy, Malbim explains that if a person is pursued by a lion, he is not concerned about a bee that might sting him! A great and powerful fear extinguishes a lesser fear. Similarly, Moshe instructs the Children of Israel to immerse themselves in the fear of Hashem so that that fear will overpower their apprehension and anxiety vis-a-vis the nations.
Moshe’s message to the People of Israel, therefore, is actually the greatest comfort: Your awe of Hashem will elevate you above mundane concerns. It will ennoble and empower you.
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