According to the Bible the principal religious virtue is yirah. What is the nature of yirah? The word has two meanings: fear and awe. There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in Jewish tradition. Job, who said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," was not motivated in his piety by fear, but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of His eternal love.
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is "a surrender of the succors which reason offers," awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear. To feel "The Lord is my light and my salvation" is to feel "Whom shall I fear?" (Psalm 27:1)...
Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be be worthy of faith. Awe, rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew. It is "the beginning and gateway of faith, the first precept of all, and upon it the whole world is established." In Judaism, yirat hashem, the awe of God, or yirat shamayim, the "awe of heaven", is almost equivalent to the word "religion". In Biblical language the religious man is not called "believer", as he is for example in Islam (mu'min), but yare hashem.
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