Fear: Our Greatest Power
The last of the Aseres Ha-Dibros (Ten Commandments) is lo sachmod – not to
be envious of someone else’s possessions. Early commentaries already
question: How can the Torah legislate against a person’s enviousness? If a
person experiences envy, how is the mitzvah of lo sachmod going to prevent
him from having those feelings?
The Ibn Ezra suggests that Hashem wants our conduct to be so completely
dictated by Torah precepts that things that don’t belong to us are beyond
our reality. Just like a pauper would never in his wildest dreams
entertain the thought of marrying the princess, however beautiful she is,
so too the possessions of others should be so far removed from our
thoughts that we could never imagine desiring them.
Put differently, we can read stories about exceptionally wealthy or gifted
people of past generations without experiencing jealousy – because we’re
removed from their reality. That is the extent to which we should
internalize the Torah’s concepts of others’ property, he says.
The Beis Ha-Levi suggests a different answer that has repercussions not
only to the mitzvah of lo sachmod but to all of the Torah’s mitzvos, not
to mention the sometimes hard-to-grasp concept of yiras Shamayim (fear of
Suppose, he says, you were consumed by desire for something. Suppose that
the object of your desire was not difficult for you to obtain. Overcome by
the yetzer hara’s overtures, you are completely helpless and decide to
sin. Suppose that the object of your desires is on the other side of a
frozen river. As you cross the river, the ice beneath you begins to crack,
your foot slips in to the icy waters, and you are moments away from being
swallowed up by the undercurrent. You fall to the ground and scrape at the
ice with all your might; your very life hangs in the balance.
At that moment, as you battle the freezing waters, are you still in the
throes of your forbidden infatuation? Not likely.
Fear is the most powerful emotion. The fear of imminent death completely
overwhelms our previous frenzy of desire – the same one we just a minute
ago thought was insurmountable! By the way, it doesn’t even have to be
fear of death. Maybe he slipped on the ice, and is in the process of
falling to the ground. Even the momentary fear of falling is far more
powerful than the throes of desire. For at least as long as the fear
lasts, all cravings are temporarily put on hold.
Oy va-voy. Do you realize what he’s saying? It means that when we give in
to sin, our yiras Shamayim is so weak that it doesn’t even measure up to
the momentary fear of someone about to lose their balance. The nature of
man is such that even a relatively minor fear outweighs all sorts of
desire. The sinner bears witness on himself, he says, that he has not
achieved even the smallest measure of yiras Shamayim. To paraphrase the
words of a contemporary poet: Our greatest power is our own fear.
When we sin, Beis Ha-Levi points out, we mistakenly rationalize that we
were powerless; our desires were so strong we were unable to resist them,
despite our good intentions. But for a drop of yiras Shamayim!
The yetzer hara (i.e. human perversity), no doubt, is a formidable
opponent. “Were it not for Hashem’s help,” our Sages say, “it would be
virtually impossible to overcome.” Yet we have just discovered the yetzer
hara’s secret weakness – the potent antidote to human weakness and the
seduction of sin -- the fearing heart cannot sin.
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, but to fear Hashem your G-d
(Devarim/Deuteronomy 10:12). Is that really all? Seemingly not, because
the verse continues: to walk in His ways, love Him, and serve Hashem your
G-d… And furthermore, in the words of Chazal (Berachos 33b), “Is fear of
Heaven such a small matter?”
Yes! It is a small matter. The odds are completely skewed in our favor.
The smallest measure of fear has the capacity to overcome the most
powerful of desires.
Mefarshim question what the mitzvah of “do not desire” is doing among the
Ten Commandments, the other nine of which seem to address some of the most
fundamental aspects of Judaism.
According to the Beis Ha-Levi, the way we overcome covetousness – through
fear of Heaven – is the secret key which unlocks our power to overcome all
aspects of human weakness.
A devoted talmid (disciple) of R. Noach of Lechovitz passed away at a
young age. His untimely death was the source of great sadness among the
rest of the chasidim, and after escorting their friend to his final
resting place, they returned to the beis ha-midrash where they bemoaned
“Oy,” one cried, “what a masmid (diligent scholar)! He would sit for hours
studying page after page of the Gemara, without even the smallest of
“And what a pious man,” another said. “He refused to ever borrow money,
lest he forget to pay back, and he never spoke about anyone else out of
concern he might inadvertently come to gossip.”
“What a kind heart he had,” a third said. “He often went hungry so that
someone less fortunate would have a warm meal.”
“And what a yirei Shamayim!” another friend piped in.
With that comment, R. Noach, who was within earshot of their conversation,
coughed, drawing their attention. “Our friend,” he said, “was a pious
soul, and we will miss him dearly – but please do not be so quick to throw
around the title yirei Shamayim.
“I am a wealthy and influential man, as you know,” the Rebbe said. “Let
Heaven and earth bear witness right now that I would gladly forfeit
everything I have for just one more drop of yiras Shamayim!” Have a good
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org