The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise. — Psalm 111:10
Albert Einstein made famous the idea that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge can tell us what to do and how to do it, but imagination drives us to acquire more knowledge and apply it in new and creative ways. Knowledge without imagination is stagnant, limited, and eventually, old.
But, according to King David, there is something else more important than knowledge and imagination. Several millennia earlier, he wrote: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom . . .” Fear of God precedes wisdom. It is more important than knowledge, than imagination, than anything at all!
The Jewish sages explained it this way: Suppose you were in a life-threatening situation. What is the most important thing you need to know? How to survive, right? Everything else is irrelevant – all your business expertise, all the history, math, and science you may have mastered –are inconsequential unless that knowledge can help you out of your perilous situation. Only after you have figured out how to save yourself and are free from harm is that knowledge worth anything at all.
Fear of God in the spiritual realm is like knowing how to save yourself in the physical sphere.
How so? When we come into this world, there are inherent risks involved. We can rise to great spiritual heights if we pursue a life of godliness, or we can sink to the lowest levels if we pursue a life of immorality. We are indeed in great danger from the very moment we are born – spiritual danger, that is. And that is the most serious danger of all because the spiritual world is eternal and whatever happens to us spiritually lasts forever.
This is why “fear of God” is most important. It must precede any other kind of wisdom, because without it, all other knowledge is irrelevant.
A story is told about a student who approached his rabbi with a dilemma: He only had a small amount of time to study so he wanted to know if he should study the Bible or mussar – the Jewish study of character traits, including fear of God. The rabbi said, “Study mussar because then you will realize that you have more than just a little amount of time to study the Word of God.”
Fear of God puts everything else in life into perspective. Only by making Him the center of your life and judging your actions by His standards is all other wisdom worthwhile.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President