“And Hashem saved Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt…And the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant”
(Shemot Chapter 14 Verses 30-31)
The Bet Halevi (HaRav Yosef Dov Ber Solovetchik) has two remarkable but very different comments on the above verses. The first comment can be found in the Bet Halevi’s commentary to Parashat Bereishit, the second commentary can be found in his writings on this week’s parasha. I would like t o concentrate on his first comment:
“ The Midrash explains in regard to the verses as quoted above: “Until now (the splitting of the sea) they had not feared Hashem, but from now on, they feared Him” ( Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 240).
Having witnessed all of the punishments and plagues inflicted upon the Egyptian people, how could the Israelites not have feared G-d until the splitting of the sea as is implied by the Midrash? In what respect did they attain a new fear of Hashem?
In answering our question, we must first review another Midrash (Tanchuma to Parashat Lech Lecha):
“In this world, people have an evil inclination and they fear sin. In the future, when they will have no evil inclination, what will they fear? The goodness that has been hidden away for them, as it says,”…they will dread Hashem and His goodness… (Hoshea 3:5).”
This difficult midrash is teaching us that there are two types of fear of Hashem. The first is fear of punishment:
If a person stops to consider the evil deeds that he has committed, and how great his punishment will be because of them, he will be overwhelmed by fear. Even if one has not sinned, if he ponders on how it is in his nature to sin, and how any lapse in guarding himself leaves him vulnerable to his evil inclination, he will be terrified.
This fear is very far removed indeed from love of Hashem, which comes about through contemplating His kindness toward His creations, not His punishments. In addition, this kind of fear can focus on something other than Hashem, for example, wild animals, bandits, or for that manner anything stronger than oneself.
Yet there is another type of fear. When an individual firmly believes that Hashem is constantly bringing the entire universe into existence, and that if He stopped doing so, even momentarily, then everything would revert to void, then, too, he is overwhelmed by fear, but this fear is very distinct to the fear as described previously. This fear can be compared to the situation where a person has fallen into the sea, and is being rescued. The rescuer is pulling the man from the water, were the rescuer to loosen his grip, even momentarily, the man will surely drown.
In this scenario, the endangered party feels both love and fear towards his rescuer: love for his effort to rescue him, and fear for his absolute dependence on him. The more he appreciates what the rescuer is doing for him, the more he fears him.
This type of fear is bound up with love. As we say in the Shemonah Esrei, “We thank You … for our lives, which are utterly in Your hands.” Such fear is specifically called fear of Hashem,” for its object can only be Hashem.
It is this type of fear that all of Israel has been promised in the messianic era. Until then, for all but the saintliest individuals, Hashem’s ongoing recreation of the cosmos remains an abstract and easily forgotten article of faith. But in the future this reality will be crystal clear. “Then the children of Israel will repent and seek Hashem , their G-d, and David, their king, and they will dread Hashem and His goodness…,” i.e., they will dread Hashem once they realize their constant need for His goodness.
Now we can understand the midrash Tanchuma: In this world where people have an urge to do evil, they are afraid of sin, which is the first type of fear we discussed. But in the future, when they will have no evil inclination, “they will dread Hashem and His goodness.”
So far, we have discussed two levels of fear:
Fear of punishment
Fear of dependence
However, there is yet a third type of fear: the fear of Hashem’s grandeur, whereby contemplation of His majesty elicits awe. In this instance there is an inherent perception of the essence of Hashem, we are in absolute awe of Hashem.
Man must employ all three of these modes, for different circumstances require different responses to the desire to do wrong. Optimally, one should overcome this desire by contemplating Hashem’s grandeur. If that fails, he should recall that at the very moment he seeks to sin, Hashem is bringing him into existence and can terminate that existence if He so chooses. Yet if that too proves ineffective, he should fear the punishment in store for him as a consequence of his sin.
Chazal allude to these three tactics in the Gemara in Berachot 5a:
“A person should always incite his good inclination against his evil one… If that fails, he should study Torah (thereby attaining fear of Hashem’s grandeur). If that fails, he should recite Kriat Shema (thereby reinforcing his belief in the unity of Hashem and the impossibility of existence without Him). If that too fails, he should consider his day of death (fear of punishment).
The Jewish people indeed attained the first level of fear in Egypt. As they beheld the magnitude of the punishments inflicted upon those who defy Hashem. But at Yam Tsuf, propelled by tangible evidence, they reached the second level, which we long to arrive at in the future.
“As they advanced through the sea, the water hardened beneath their feet and formed an arch overhead and walls at their sides” (Avot DeRabbi Natan). At that time, they glimpsed Hashem’s true relationship with creation firsthand, and the more they realized the kindness that Hashem was bestowing upon them; the more they indeed “dread (ed) Hashem and His goodness.” At Yam Ttsuf, Am Yisrael saw for themselves how dependent they were on Hashem and they internalized the fact that this dependence was not only then and there but everywhere and for all time.
Now we can understand why it is that the midrash in Yalkut Shimoni as quoted above, stated that until the splitting of the Red Sea, the people did not fear Hashem. In Egypt they felt the fear of punishment, but not the fear born of contemplating Hashem’s kindness and mercy. At the sea, however, they saw these attributes clearly.”
(* Perhaps we could suggest, as an extension of the Bet Halevi’s comments, that the people at Har Sinai acquired the third level of fear –i.e. Hashem’s grandeur – to the degree that they begged of Moshe to act as their medium, not out of fear of punishment, or dependence, but because they had reached the highest level of fear of Hashem, an inherent perception of His greatness, having been a party to the greatest revelation of all time.)
“The people of Israel have been likened to a tree. Throughout the winter, the tree stands naked, exposed, and at times frozen. Its leaves have fallen; the arrows of frost and ferocious storms have almost uprooted it. The tree is at the point of despair, yet nevertheless, on this day of Tu Bishvat, we rejoice in the tree, we rejoice with the knowledge and the hope that that very tree will soon once again blossom.
Israel is that tree, during this long winter of exile, the tree is often exposed, its leaves have fallen, and storms of tragedy and war have almost uprooted us. Yet from this very darkness, even perhaps because of this darkness, the blossoming of Israel will surely come, the redemption will indeed arrive” (The Admor of Chortkov)
The day of Tu Bishvat has for centuries been celebrated as a festival in honor of Eretz Yisrael. In Eastern Europe, people would go to great lengths to sit together and enjoy the fruits of Eretz Yisrael , whilst studying midrashim that relate to the seven species.
We have merited celebrating Tu Bishvat in Eretz Yisrael, and as we approach this special day this year, the words of the Admor seem so apt. His beautiful mashal gives us strength hope and belief. The winter is so very misleading; it implies darkness, pessimism, and sadness. There are no flowers, there are no birds, the trees stand bereft of their beauty, all around us seems barren and lacking in life. Yet from the winter comes the spring.
The spring reveals to us the truth behind the winter. Not only did the trees survive the winter, they in fact blossom as a direct result of the winter.
What appears superficially to be negative is in fact an essential part of who we are, what we are, and where we are going. We are undoubtedly living through a difficult period, though we should constantly remember that this is the most momentous period for our people since the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet just as the winter is so often misleading, we all know in the depths of our heart, that however long the winter maybe, spring will inevitably arrive.
In our celebration of Tu Bishvat, we celebrate that truth, as the trees begin to blossom we are reminded that the blossom of spring is directly related to the winter.
As we deal with the reality of Israel today, our faith tells us that spring will surely come, however difficult the winter may be.
I truly believe, that we will, bezrat Hashem, emerge from this period even stronger than before, more united than before. Only Hashem knows how long this winter will last, but just as in nature, winter will give way to spring.
We are on the verge of that spring. The spring that we await will be absolute; it will be the final spring, the spring that our people have wished for and prayed for, for thousands of years.
For one who has had the privilege to work in the Old City of Yerushalayim for over a decade, I can see at first hand, that the blossoms have begun to blossom. After a month of miluim, a month spent with twenty year olds who have such commitment to our people and our State, I feel that as a people we have arrived at our historical Tu Bishvat.
We know only too well, that even when spring arrives there are days, even weeks of intermittent winter. Yet once the spring has declared its arrival, it will inevitably establish itself, it will overcome the dying remnants of winter, and it will lead us in all its glory, in all of its perpetual beauty, to the wonderful summer, there will be no turning back.
We will undoubtedly once again see Kohanim walking the streets of Yerushalayim , and the Bet Hanikdash with all of its wonderful glory will once again be the center of the universe.
Tu Bishvat signals the coming of Purim, which in turn leads to Pessach – “In Nissan we were redeemed, and in Nissan we will be redeemed”.