Recently, a Bar Mitzvah student asked me, “Cantor, what is the difference between awe and fear?” Struck by the depth of his question, my mind raced to find some plausible explanation. And then, in order to buy time, I responded with that great pedagogical tool. “That’s a great question. What do you think is the difference?,” I challenged him, groping for my own clarity on the words, and stalling for time. The exchange was prompted by our studying Parshat Pekudei, which he would be reading on the occasion of his becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
After plowing through the minute descriptions of the construction of the Mishkan Ohel Moed, The Tabernacle of the Tent of Assembly, along with the details of the vestments of the priests, and including the instruction for the tools of offering, I challenged the student, “Now, visualize in your mind how all of that must have looked. Imagine that you are going to be seeing all of this work for the first time. What does it look like? What is everyone doing? What do you hear? What do you see? And most importantly, how does it make you feel?”
As teachers of Jewish children and the ones who prepare them for the “big event,” we utilize many tools in our instruction. We begin with the simple decoding of letters to make complete words. We then add more symbols- ta-amei hamikra which are decoded into musical sounds. We even (hopefully) get to study the simple meaning of the text itself, helping them to them draw connections to their own lives. But rarely, if ever, do we get to one of the central issues in the minds of our students-fear.
This time, I didn’t have to bring it up; my student came to the word fear, and its (almost) synonym, awe. If we are to consult a Hebrew-English dictionary, we could find different words for fear. Pachad and yira are both listed; the first being more closely defined as “trembling,” or “terror”, both being responses to a forceful event, perhaps one with filled with rage or someone’s wrath. However, yira, might also be more closely associated with the other side of “fear” which is “awe.” In Deuteronomy 31:6 we read al tir’u , which is linked with the power of God and the awesome experience of the Divine. Indeed, “awe” and “fear” are two sides of the same coin. We are fearful of what we are not yet capable of understanding, but in awe of the potential of the holiness in encountering God’s Divine Presence.
In “God in Search of Man,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era.”
A Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration has the potential to enable a student to enter the “Mishkan” on that special day. Certainly they can be encouraged to open up their imagination to a Jewish life beyond that day, a life enriched and supported by “yirat Shamayim,” the awe of the Heavenly Presence.
On this Shabbat Pekudei, as I commemorate the 54th anniversary of my becoming a Bar Mitzvah, I think back on my mindset at the time. Though fear, and a little bit of awe were present feelings on that day, it would have been impossible for me to foresee the potential for finding those moments of “awe” that would follow in the years of my life.
Perhaps creating this envisioning process for our students is the most important Bar/Bat Mitzvah training tool of all.