The year is 90 CE. Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakai, the most important tanna (Talmudic sage) alive during and after the destruction of the Second Temple and the “founder” of post-Temple Judaism as we know it, is lying on his deathbed in the town of Berur Hayil in southern Israel. His students come to visit him and ask for a last blessing. He blesses them: “May your fear of God be as great as your fear of your fellow man” (יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם). The students are puzzled; surely it should be the opposite – they should fear God more than they fear man? Riba”z explains: “Don’t you know that when a man commits a sin, he is worried some other person might see him?”. (The story is found in Berachot 28:)
Every person understands, deep inside, this blessing of R. Yokhanan ben Zakai. Who can truly say his fear of God is the same (or deeper) than his fear of fellow man? We all recite מורא שמיים as our duty, but it is difficult for us to fear a transcendental power.
This last shabbat I witnessed a vivid example of the wisdom of this blessing by R. Yokhanan ben Zakai.
On Friday evening I attended services at the Joachimstalerstrasse synagogue in Berlin. During the first part of the service (mincha and kabbalat shabbat), most of the congregation was engaged in animated conversation. Two men next to me were discussing business issues; a group behind me was trading jokes; even the chazan occasionally stopped to answer a comment from a passerby.
Then came the pause in the service for the rabbi’s traditional dvar Torah (sermon). The rabbi took the podium and spoke for about 15 minutes. During this entire time, the congregation was completely silent. Nobody talked, nobody joked, nobody even walked around. You could hear a siddur drop (if one were to be dropped, but it wasn’t). Everybody listened with full respect to what the rabbi had to say.
As my German is virtually non-existent, I could not understand what the rabbi was saying. So I had ample time to contemplate this situation. It suddenly dawned on me that this is exactly what R. Yokhanan ben Zakai meant. If only we would be as respectful towards God during our prayers to Him as we are towards the rabbi when he delivers his sermon.
!יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם