Holiness & Fear: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Parashat Yitro (Jethro)
Shemot (Exodus) 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6 (6-7)

Three years ago, I entitled my commentary of this week’s reading, “A Call to Holiness & Humility”. As I was reading this week, I understood more clearly the key to fulfilling God’s call for holiness and humility is the fear of the Lord.

Fear of the Lord is the head of knowledge; wisdom and moral fools despise.
Proverbs 1:7 (translation mine)

The Hebrew word for “fear” in this scripture is יראה (yira) which is fear that comes from reverence and, conversely, reverence that comes out of fear. It is very different from the word פחד (pachad), which means to be scared or afraid.

In our Parashah, we read God’s call to the children of Israel:

And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “This is what you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own jewel (treasure) among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
Exodus 19:3-6 (emphasis mine)

It is important to note Israel’s immediate response to God’s call through Moses:

 “… All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”
Exodus 18:8a

God’s call to Israel has always been to be His people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation through whom He would display His holiness and might. God is holy and in our text in Exodus, we see the beginning of a more precise description of His precepts for us to display His Holiness, shine His light, and bring His truth into this world. However, if we lose sight of His call on our lives, and replace the fear with arrogance and entitlement, we will fail in our calling.

In Exodus 20, we find that God spoke directly to the children of Israel the first ten words (known as the "Ten Commandments"). However, Israel did not understand God’s words as we see in Exodus 20:18:

And all the people were watching and hearing the thunder and the lightning flashes, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it all, they trembled and stood at a distance.

Israel could not comprehend God’s majesty and in their fear of dying, they asked for Moses to speak to them, i.e., to interpret what God was telling them. I love Moses's reply to them when he says:

Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you will not sin.
Exodus 20:20

God’s call to Israel was to serve Him out of reverence and fear and to live a holy life free of sin. In our Haftarah, we learn of God’s call to Isaiah as we find yet another majestic description of God:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him, each having six wings: with two each covered his face, and with two each covered his feet, and with two each flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of armies. The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
Isaiah 6:1-4

Both Isaiah and the children of Israel were overwhelmed by what they saw. The key difference is that Isaiah feared God as he knew he was a sinful man living among sinful people and that, since he saw God, he would most likely die: 

Then I said, “Woe to me, for I am lost, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of armies.”
Isaiah 6:5

I love Isaiah's humble posture towards God; he acknowledges his sinful nature while also acknowledging God's holiness in fear and reverence. But what really speaks to me is that once he is purified, he eagerly answers God's call without hesitation: 

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your guilt is taken away and atonement is made for your sin.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah 6:6-8

Isaiah’s fear of God is what motivated him to obey. It is important to note that the coal touching his lips is not only an act of purification and atonement, but also an anointing to speak God’s message of truth to Israel and the nations, which Isaiah did powerfully. 

My dear brothers and sisters, in closing, I want to remind us that our God is a Holy God. He has called us to His service, and we are to serve Him with fear, reverence, and dedication. Whatever task He has called you to, I encourage you to do it with a humble heart that seeks His holiness. 

Let us search our hearts and check our attitudes to make sure that we reflect the One we represent on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Check out previous blogs on this parashah!

Did you know? — Lone Soldier

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