Sudden Tragedies, Fear of Heaven and The deaths of the righteous

Fear of Heaven means that we are gripped with and by our awareness of our Creator and, by extension, we are moved to align our thoughts and actions with that ever-increasing awareness. The state called fear of Heaven is considered the most fundamental achievement for those who are on a spiritual ladder (Tehillim 11:10, Mishlei 1:7). Fear of Heaven is not a one-time accomplishment. It is rather a lifetime process and is often accompanied by ups and downs. In addition to the verses cited above, we should pay special attention to the verse in Koheles 3:14 wherein we learn that the Almighty causes that we should revere Him. The task of revering Heaven is so important that the Almighty helps us along.

The Talmud refers to two of the things that the Almighty does to prompt fear of Heaven; two things which inspire reverence and awe of Him. Those are (a) thunder; and (b) the tragic deaths of the righteous. As we will see, certain events have the distinct qualities of both triggers. Let us take a look at those triggers and how they are meant to be used.

In the Talmud Berachos 59a we are taught that the function of thunder is to straighten out bent hearts. A bent heart is the heart that has leaned away from belief in the Almighty. How does thunder accomplish this goal of straightening one’s heart? It combines fright, to get our attention, with the unknown, as the Maharsha comments, that we do not know what benefit comes to the world from the clap of thunder. This combination grabs our attention (fear) and points us to the fact that there is a great deal of reality that lies beyond the pale of our own awareness (unknown).

The other event that prompts awe and reverence is the tragic death of the righteous as cited in the Midrash. For those who keep track of such things, the Midrash is found in the portion of Toldos – the week coinciding with the tragedy that we are reeling from. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 65:22) relates that R’ Yosi b. Yoezer was being escorted on his way to his execution. He was bound and being carried on the boards that were to become his crucifixion. One of his escorts on that Shabbos day was his own nephew, Yakum, riding high on a horse in desecration of the Shabbos and in mockery of his saintly uncle. He jeered at his uncle saying ‘take note of the horse that I am riding on and the ‘horse’ that your Master has prepared for you to ride on.’ His uncle responded that if indeed those who anger the Almighty and flaunt His Will are granted such luxury as you are being granted, then all the more so will there be infinite reward and grandeur for those who adhere to His Will. To which Yakum continued, ‘is there anyone who has adhered to His Will more than you?’ To which his uncle responded, ‘if such is the strict judgment that is meted out even to those who adhere to His Will, then how much more so will there be infinitely strict judgment for those who flaunt His Will.’ The Midrash goes on to say that these words penetrated Yakum’s heart like the venom of a snake and he died in his grief and repentance, and actually preceded his saintly uncle to his eternal place (Gan Eden).

The idea that when the Almighty applies strict judgment to those who are close to him it brings forth awe and reverence of Him is stated explicitly in the Talmud (Zevachim 125b). The Talmud teaches that when the Almighty exacts judgment from the righteous, meaning that He exacts recompense for their minor infractions, then He is feared, exalted and praised. For if the slights of the righteous are not ignored, then how much more will the toll be for the egregious violations of those who set their own will ahead of His Will.

When a person does the math upon seeing or hearing of the judgment that is meted out to the righteous and he comes to a realization that he must strive to live in accordance with His Will, we can understand that the Almighty is feared and even exalted, but praised?! That seems incongruous with the moment of clarity that comes with such a calculation.

But if we put all of the Talmudic references together a clearer picture emerges. If a person does not believe that there is a reality beyond that which he can see, then he needs something to shock him. Something that is frightening and beyond his comprehension; something that points him to the fact that there is more going on than meets the eye. Something that points to eternity. The generic term for such a shocking event is thunder. But thunder can come in many forms, including in the heinous screams of axe-wielding jihadists and in the wails of the bereaved when the carnage is over. The thunder straightens out the crooked heart. The events are frightening and beyond our comprehension. They point us beyond.

Once a person is open to the existence of eternity and that which is beyond the narrow confines of his awareness, then he is in a position to start doing the math. If those who flaunt His Will receive grandeur for the tiny acts of goodness that they have performed in this world, then those who strive to uphold His Will and manage in even a small way to do so are set to receive reward 500 times that of the most wealthy, healthiest, powerful wish-fulfilled person in this world who is not striving to uphold His Will but who, willy-nilly did some good in the world. If he places this reality before his eyes then he will praise the Almighty for granting him such blessing. Even the slightest act of goodness done in the name of upholding the Will of the Creator carries infinite, eternal blessing. Praise indeed.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as powerful. If the righteous are held accountable for even the tiny infractions that they have committed during their saintly lives, then those who are not taking the game seriously at all had better stop and pause. The combination of thunder and the judgment of the righteous can be wrapped into one intense event. We must stop and pause lest the event miss its mark – and its mark is each of us. If we fail to internalize the take-home lesson from such a shocking tragedy then we invite a make-up test. This, says the Rambam, is why those who do not take heed when tragedy strikes are considered ‘cruel.’

May our understanding of the meaning of these tragic events inspire us to step up the level to which we take the game seriously and may that increase in fear of Heaven be a great source of merit to those who lost their lives and as a healing merit to those who lost their health in order to bring this message to us.

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