Spiritual Tools:Awe of God: Honoring The Presence of a Sage
Rabbi Abba HaKohen bar Papa said: When I would see a group of people, I would take a different route, not to burden them to stand up when they saw me. When I told this to Rabbi Yosef bar Zevida, he said to me, “You have to pass by them, so that they see you and stand up for you, by doing this you will bring them to the awe of Heaven”, as it is stated “In the presence of an old person shall you rise, and you shall honor the presence of a sage, and you shall be in awe of your God”. Why? For the value of the righteous is one without decline, but the value of Esau is one that is destined to decline, for today a governor, tomorrow a deputy, and after that an officer, and so it is for all their prominent people. […] But Jacob’s value is one that does not decline, and a holiness that will never be profaned. (Midrash Tanchuma, Behaalotcha #11)
Rabbi Yosef bar Zevida, in urging Rabbi Abba bar Papa to walk by people in order to give them the opportunity to rise before him, is stressing how giving honor to a sage will lead them to the awe of God. The Midrash does not describe the virtues of the righteous and how, by honoring them, recognizing and emulating their virtues, it will cause one to strengthen one’s awe of Heaven. The emphasis instead is on the the everlasting quality of the truly righteous, and how, in contrast to the wicked whose glory declines and fades away, the value of the righteous will endure.
How can this be used as a tool to develop our awe of God? When we realize that when we stand up before a sage, we are not giving honor to a title, to a passing icon of fame, or to the person himself -who one day will die-, but to what this person represents. We are honoring his Torah, which is eternal, we are honoring his eternal contribution to the world, we are honoring his thoughts and words that have eternal value, and we are honoring how he nurtures our own connection to eternity. Of course we want a Rabbi Abba bar Papa to cross our path; he is a living reminder of the everlasting quality of our relationship with God, he is a living reminder of the awareness we should have before we act and speak, a reminder of how careful we should be to avoid damaging our connection to eternity. And when we stand up to honor the presence of such a person, we are honoring what we share with this great human being; we are honoring our own attachment to an eternal life, we are honoring the Godly soul that is within us, we are celebrating the possibilities to achieve tremendous things too. It is this that will lead us to the Awe of God; it is this that will make us treasure and protect our relationship with Him.