One of the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is found in a popular Jewish tune: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” He was speaking about the physical world—because, when it comes to fear of Heaven, just the opposite is true.
In our reading, Abraham travels with his wife to King Avimelech in the south of Canaan. Abraham feared that they would kill him in order to take her, similar to part of our reading of last week [Gen. 12:12]. So he again tells the King that his wife Sarah is his sister, and, struck by her beauty, Avimelech immediately claims her to be his own wife [Gen 20:1-2].
G-d comes to Avimelech in a dream, and tells him the truth about Sarah, instructing him to return her to her husband in the morning. And when Avimelech arises, “Avimelech called to Avraham, And he said to him, ‘what have you done to us, and how have I sinned to you, that you brought upon me and upon my kingdom a great sin…’ and Avimelech said to Avraham, ‘what did you see, that you did this thing.'”
“And Avraham said, for I said [to myself], ‘only that there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me over the matter of my wife'” [20:9-11] Avraham realized that without fear of Heaven, literally anything could happen. They would even murder him .to take his wife.
Once upon a time in America, it was understood that education wasn’t just about acquiring a set of technical skills; it was also about learning values and character. George Washington said that schools should teach virtue and morality, and Thomas Jefferson said that children should be educated “to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties…” And more recently, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “the function of education… is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically… [but] intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
Fear of G-d Is what makes a person behave correctly when no one is watching, when he has the opportunity to commit “the perfect crime.” Because a person with that fear realizes that there is no time when no one is watching. The Al-mighty sees and knows all. That is where morals and character come from, and schools used to understand that they had a role to play in teaching them.
Decades ago, already, schools had become a place where mention of G-d was to be avoided. I recall a college classmate writing about a class experience where the teacher had posed a moral question for every student to answer, and as they went around the room giving answers, no one mentioned G-d. But this friend, a religious person, referred to G-d and Divine obligations in his answer, and more than half of the remaining classmates mentioned G-d as well. They were afraid to mention G-d when answering a moral question in a college classroom, until he bravely broke the ice.
That is how you arrive at classrooms where anything is possible, where supposedly educated people justify and “contextualize” the worst and most vile crimes. That is how they march through campus encouraging and indeed seeking violence. “Only that there is no fear of G-d in this place.” Without fear of Heaven, moral bankruptcy comes in its place.
And that is why we must cling to that fear, carrying it with us always.