By Rabbi Ed Gelb
Director: Camp Ramah in New England
“You shall not fear them; for the Lord your God shall fight for you.” (Deuteronomy 3:22) The end of the first Torah portion of the last book of the Torah (Parshat Devarim) tells us not to fear our enemies because God is with us. There are fine lines between respect, awe and fear but the differences are critical to us as individuals and as a society. Respect and awe can be productive tools in teaching our children to be the people we want, while fear tends to undermine and even destroy these goals.
Fostering basic respect for each other, our institutions, and our planet is important because it helps us understand both our place and our role in the world. It reminds us that everything does not revolve around us. We cannot just do as we please but rather must exist in a broader context. The more we understand this, the better able we are to take our place as partners with God to make the world a better place.
Awe should be reserved for people like our parents, and of course God. Awe resides on the cusp of fear. Let’s call it a healthy respect. It includes the sense that we are accountable. Our actions have consequences and we will ultimately be judged by what we do. This feeling can both be limiting and liberating. Awe can limit us by giving us pause when we contemplate doing something wrong and can liberate us by allowing us to do what is right even when it is unpopular. In each case, the idea of answering to a higher authority affects our decision-making.
Fear, on the other hand, is usually destructive. Fear prompts us to do things that we know are wrong to escape pain and punishment. Fear persuades us to stop thinking about what is right and sends us panicking toward answers that provide, at best, short-term relief. Fear is a weapon used by despots to focus the masses on what they want while hiding what is true.
Much of Judaism constitutes a guide on how to teach respect and awe to our children while limiting the impact of fear. In the book of Devarim, Moshe gives the people a final recounting of these precepts before sending them off into the world — with the assurance that if they remain true to these teachings, God will be with them. In our world, we work together — families, Jewish day and supplementary schools, and camps — to instill in our children these timeless values, along with the comfort that our faith has brought to so many generations.