Vayeira - "Fear" (Gen. 18:1 - 22:24)
2017 S.H. Parker

The word ירא, translated "fear," appears three times in this sedrah.

 וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַהֲרָגוּנִי, עַל-דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי. Abraham said: 'Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.
  Gen. 20:11

as Abraham explains to Abimelech why he called Sarah his "sister," failing to mention that she was (also) his wife.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם,  מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם. And God heard the voice of the lad and the angel of God called to Hagar from the heavens (and said unto her:) "What is with you, Hagar? Do not fear because God hears the voice of the lad where he is."
  Gen. 21:17

after Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael and she used up her water.

כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה Because now I know that you fear God
  Gen. 22:12

after Abraham nearly sacrifices Yitzhak (some say he actually did so).

ירא is used many times throughout Torah. It appears so often that casual readers get the impression that יְהוָה wants us cowering , prostrated in "fear and trembling." It appears so often that casual readers get the impression that יְהוָה is harsh, cold, hard and demanding, not "a nice guy" at all.

Yet, even the most casual of readers must be struck by the fact that "fear," as in "being afraid," just doesn't work in many of these pasukim (passages). Perhaps the notion of being afraid works in Abraham's excuse to Abimelech (though, I think it is a stretch). It certainly seems to work in the context of Hagar and Ishmael. But in "now I know that you are afraid of God," it simply doesn't work. It makes no sense at all.

The idea of being afraid of God should strike a seriously dissonant cord in even the most casual of readers (and, it does not matter whether you're "a believer" or not, this is nothing more than a matter of fairly reading a text). After all, this is a God who does not fulfill His promise to kill Adam should he eat of the fruit. While this God does wipe out (almost) all life in the flood, it is claimed to be caused by rampant evil (or is inclusion of the flood story a sociological requirement to account for a "racial memory" of such a flood?) but doesn't in the face of the hubris at the ziggurat of Babylonia. This is the God who demands we help others even when we don't like them, that we not bear grudges, that we love one another, that we speak well of one another, that we treat the outsider properly (often repeated, this one) and the widow and the orphan and the poor.... The willingness of many to accept the harshest interpretation of the use of the word ירא against the background of the other things we can plainly see in the Bible, begs a rather significant question.

For example:

  אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם A man will fear his mother and his father and you will keep my sabbaths: I am Adonai your God.
  Lev. 19:3

God commands us to be afraid of our parents? I don't think so. And this is somehow related to sabbath-keeping?-I really don't think so.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ, כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסּוֹת אֶתְכֶם, בָּא הָאֱלֹהִים; וּבַעֲבוּר, תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל-פְּנֵיכֶם--לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ. And Moses said to the people: 'Do not be afraid (fear not); because God is come to prove you and that His fear may be before you [lit. in your face], that you do not sin.'
  Ex. 20:16

Here, the first use of ירא makes perfect sense. But what about the second? Can "fear" even function, grammatically, this way?

How about:

יִרְאַת יְהוָה, רֵאשִׁית דָּעַת; חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר, אֱוִילִים בָּזוּ Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; the foolish despise wisdom and discipline.
  Prov. 1:7

This gets interesting. Here, "fear" is contrasted with "despising," not with being comfortable or the like, as you might expect.

Could it be that "fear" is not a good rendering of ירא? Can we have been taken in by years of translators' or commentators' incompetence? Could ירא be one of those ... rare words with more than one meaning?

In my Hebrew-English dictionary, ירא is defined a "fearing, pious ... to fear, to revere ... fear, awe ... reverence, piety." Afraid ... reverent ... I think we've been duped.

Commenting on

כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה Because now I know that you fear God
  Gen. 22:12

The Jewish Study Bible (p. 46) teaches "In the Tanakh, the "fear of God" denotes an active obedience to the divine will."

Just as there are two classes of mitzvot (commandments), positive and negative, so may we think of two classes of "obedience:" active and passive.

Passive obedience, what is this like? This is like fulfilling a negative commandment, avoiding doing wrong. It is not doing something ... anything. It is the absence of action. It may be intentional but it is doing nothing.

Active obedience, what is this like? This is like fulfilling a positive mitzvah. It is doing something: helping your neighbor when his donkey has fallen under its load, addressing all persons with respect, displaying a cheerful demeanor to any and all, helping little old ladies across the street. Active obedience is the kind of thing that, even if only a tiny bit, leaves the world better than it was before. Active obedience is doing.

We are taught that violating a positive precept is punished less severely than violating a negative precept. In just the same way, active obedience is rewarded more generously than passive obedience. It doesn't matter whether you're a believer or not, whether you're "religious" or not, "fear of God" is a good thing to do, a good thing to show.