Love & Fear of God


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student


Chapter 1, Mishna 3: “Ontignos, the man from Socho said: Don’t be like servants who serve their master to receive ‘pras’ but rather be like servants who serve their master not to receive ‘pras’ and let Fear of Heaven be on you”

We last left off with an analysis of the comments of the Rambam on our Mishna, where he says that while one must strive to serve God from love, he must also serve God from fear. In trying to appreciate to this relationship between the commandments to love and fear God, we came upon a contradiction within the Rambam’s Laws of Repentance: on the one hand, he says (10:2) that love of God, meaning involvement in Torah because it is the truth and the ultimate good, is not a level that is attainable for everyone, even for all the wise and scholarly. Yet, Rambam also says (10:5) that with the correct training and education, every individual has the ability to serve God out of love. How are we to resolve these seemingly contradictory statements of the Rambam?

The description of ‘love of God’ may refer to two different individuals. One type may be a person who is moved by an idea that he learned so that he gains an appreciation for God and is motivated by this appreciation. Due to this experience, he is moved to serve out of love. However, this doesn’t mean that the whole individual has changed: in a couple of hours, he will still return to the same level he was at before. Another type of individual is one who the Rambam describes as ‘lovesick’ with God. Just as when a man falls in love with a woman, she absorbs all his psychological energies, so too when one becomes lovesick with God, all of his energies are directed towards God. In this person, there has been a fundamental change within his internal makeup so that there is a new level of constancy of the emotion, always feeling drawn towards God.

With these two categories, we may now understand the statements of the Rambam. When the Rambam says “the level of serving God out of love can be reached by everyone”, he is talking of the experience and motivation of love, the first type in the above paragraph. Any individual with the proper training and education may have the ability to hear a beautiful idea and be moved by it so that he will act out of love. However, this experience may be limited in that when the experience is over, the person returns to the level he was at before. In contrast, there is the other type of person who becomes lovesick with God, making changes within his internal being so that he is a different person who is always drawn to God. It is to this level that the Rambam says that only a few people, not even every wise man, can reach. The two statements of the Rambam no longer are contradictory: they are each referring to a certain type of ‘love of God’ and each one is accessible according to the nature of its level.

With these ideas in mind, we may now understand the comment made by the Rambam on our Mishna, that one must serve God with love and with fear. We asked what the relationship between the two commandments is. If love means serving God out of an appreciation for the truth and the ultimate good, fear means that the person doesn’t fully recognize this to appreciate it. Thus, there is still some part of him that desires something else. Fear of God allows him to keep his desires in check so that he may always overcome those desires to do what is correct due to the recognition of the greatness of God.  Since it is difficult for a person to constantly be in a state where his energies and desires are directed in the pure form of love, meaning towards the truth, the element of fear must always exist. In this way, the person will always be able to move towards perfection, for even when he doesn’t have the pure form of “love” of God, he will still be able to check his emotions and channel them through “fear” of God.

We mentioned previously another comment of the Rambam on our Mishna: love of God is tied to fulfilling positive commandments and fear of God is tied to the safeguarding of the prohibitions of the Torah. At first glance, this statement is perplexing: why should it be so? Why should my love or fear towards God differentiate based upon the commandment that I am keeping? Either way, they are all commandments of God! To be continued.