And anyway, Chazal speaks copiously of the importance of fear, yirah—meaning yirat Shamayim.
Fear of Heavenly Punishment is not the ideal state. The Kli Yakar explains the great advantage of doing teshuvah from love, rather than fear. (For more, please see Teshuvah from Love vs. Teshuvah from Fear and Doing True Teshuvah: he Kli Yakar on Parshat Bo.)
Nonetheless, fear is indeed a motivator and a legitimate one.
(Please see also Why Fear of God is Still Important & Beneficial in Our Generation.)
I’m going to share one of my fear-motivators because I think about it sometimes when I’m feeling unmotivated or frivolous. It’s a sharp story and not for everyone, but it works for me.
"It Will End Badly."
Born to frum parents (his father had learned at Pressburg Yeshivah), including a very warm & loving mother (not sure about his father; it never says), Izzy Rubenstein is orphaned of his father after his father's long bout with tuberculosis.
To make matters worse, they were already poor and living in a village near the Carpathian Mountains on the Hungarian border.
For reasons both mentioned and unmentioned, when Izzy’s mother found herself widowed, she didn’t have support from her original family (both her parents were niftar)--or her late husband's family apparently. Instead, she went to work in the local vineyards during the warm months and sewed clothes in the winter.
When Izzy started going off the derech, his mother pleaded with him (page 5).
“Izzy, Izzy, my son,” she would tell him on his visits home, “don’t you ever forget that you are scion to an important, respectable Jewish family.”
But Izzy only responded by asserting that he was not a little boy anymore and that she should no longer call him “Izzy” (or “Yitzchak”) but “Isidore.”
Then Izzy churned out his teinos:
Where was this so-called important, respectable family when Izzy and his siblings went hungry after their father died? Where was this respectable family when Tatte was ill?
“Yes,” Izzy continued. “They reminded me not to forget to say Kaddish, but they forgot to ask if I had food to eat! They do not interest me, as I evidently to not interest them.”
But his mother continued to weep, imploring him: “If you won’t remember that you are a Jew and instead act like a sheigetz, the goyim will remind you that you are not one of them and it will end badly.”
The narrator states: Her words were prophetic, but she did not know it at the time.
And indeed, Izzy—despite his Zionist connections and application for a visa to Eretz Yisrael—was swept up in the Shoah and didn’t survive.
Izzy Wins Our Sympathy
After all, it's very depressing and even offensive to some people.
The reason is because if you look at Izzy’s life, you see that he has some compelling excuses to go off the derech.
Religious hypocrisy played a massive part in his upbringing.
He felt abandoned and rejected by the very people who should have cared most about him (some of his close family members) and who should’ve been most sensitive and dedicated to his needs, (as propounded throughout millennia of Torah scholarship—and his family consisted of supposedly respectable & chashuv Yidden who should’ve known and upheld the Torah approach of dealing with orphans and the poor).
So if you look at Izzy in today’s light, you have a boy who suffered the extended illness and then death of his father, a boy who endured extreme poverty, appalling religious hypocrisy, apathy and abandonment by close family members, a mother who loves him but (in his eyes) doesn’t understand him or the issues of the day, plus the magnetic pull of secular socialist Zionism.
So yeah, you can validate Izzy.
It’s definitely easy to sympathize with him, despite his casting off the beautiful yoke of Torah and mitzvot.
Every time I read the above passage, my heart goes out to Izzy, Hashem yinkom damo.
But despite his very legitimate teinos, and the natural sympathy he inspires, his mother’s words ended up being fulfilled.
Teinos Lose Sway When the Measure Is Finally Filled
And that's exactly what I remind myself.
Now, Rav Miller didn’t make up this hashkafah. Not everyone holds the way he does, but many Gadolim do.
Of course there are hidden reasons and cheshbonot that we cannot fathom, but in a general sense, the ideas laid out in A Divine Madness are compelling. And Rav Miller wrote the book as a lesson, hopefully a life-saving lesson, out of his great love for his fellow Jews.
The other thing is this:
Don't Blind Yourself to All The Geshmak Aspects
In A Daughter of Two Mothers, a great many amazing Jews and their incredible acts of chessed come to life. For the most part, these sincere anshei chessed are not rebbetzins and talmidei chachamim (although some are), they are simply very good and good-hearted Yidden.
And Izzy knew them. He knew them well, in fact.
Furthermore, when you sit down and learn Jewish sources, it’s all very beautiful and compelling.
Just Rashi on Mishlei/Proverbs is so awe-inspiring. The wisdom and beauty of Pirke Avot. The lessons and profound wisdom found in Tanach—even on the simple text level, stories like Gidon, Devorah Haneviah, Megillat Esther, David Hamelech & Galyat, Megillat Ruth…these stories are incredibly compelling.
Even on a child’s level, you get so much out of them.
I once heard a famous British atheist waxing over how moving he found Megillat Ruth, declaring it to be one of his all-time favorites.
So in order to reject Judaism and give God the cold shoulder, you need to ignore a tremendous amount of truly geshmak stuff, both in Jewish scholarship and in Jewish life.
And that’s the first mistake.
Teinos & Excuses Don't Matter in the End
As we know, our tribal name Yehudim is rooted in the word hoda’ah—gratitude.
But the big mussar is that we can have legitimate teinos.
Not the teinos of whiny spoiled brats—but real legitimate teinos! They exist! They're real!
We can have compelling excuses for our pick-and-choose observance of mitzvot.
We can suffer very real hypocrisy and rejection.
And the "ooh, shiny!" and compulsions of today are more numerous, more addictive, and more intense than they’ve ever been.
But the Chumash itself lists very specific consequences for spiritually rebellious behavior—regardless of any excuses.
And that’s maybe too sharp for some people.
But for others (like me), it can be the tap they need to get back into place when the yetzer hara comes prowling around.