The Main Thing is to Fear G-d, Not Punishment
It is written, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Devarim 5:6).
Why did Hashem now tell the people, “I am Hashem your G-d”? To what can this be compared? It is like a king who liberates some prisoners and brings them to his royal palace, giving them to eat and drink. On the following day he comes to them and says, “I am the king.” Did they not know that he was the king who liberated them? In that case, why did G-d say: “I am Hashem your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery”?
Not only that, but in Parsha Shemot we read: “He said to the people, ‘Be ready after a three-day period; do not draw near a woman.’ On the third day, when it was morning, there was thunder and lightening and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people in the camp shuddered. Moshe brought the people forth from the camp towards G-d, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was smoking because Hashem had descended upon it in the fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly” (Shemot 19:15-18). Hence the Children of Israel already knew that G-d had descended upon the mountain, and they feared Him. Therefore why did He need to tell them, “I am Hashem”?
What is the Fear of Heaven?
The philosophers (mentioned in Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Eikev 2) ask why a king of flesh and blood does not need to command his servants to fear him, since they fear him without being ordered to. However the Holy One, blessed be He – the King of kings – orders us to fear Him!
The explanation is that here, Hashem wanted to teach the Children of Israel what the fear of G-d means. The author of Reshith Chochma explained it well in stating: The nature of fear must be explained, followed by the ways in which a person can manifest this fear in his heart. Fear, which the Torah on several occasions has commanded us – as it is written: “Now, O Israel, what does Hashem your G-d ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 10:12) and “Hashem your G-d shall you fear” (ibid. 6:13) – consists of man recognizing that the world has a single Creator Who created all that exists, and Who directs His creations according to His will. If He were not to sustain them, they could not exist, as it is written: “You give them all life” (Nehemiah 9:6). If we could possible imagine Him not spreading His abundance upon all the worlds for even an instant, everything would disappear and become as if it never were. This is because all things need Him, whereas He needs nothing. We must fear Him and take upon ourselves the yoke of Torah and the yoke of mitzvot, like a servant who knows that he has a master whom he must serve, as it is written: “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him” (I Chronicles 28:9).
In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: “This [Bereshith 1:1] contains the first precept of all, namely the fear of Hashem, as it is written: ‘The fear of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom’ [Tehillim 111:10] as well as, ‘The fear of Hashem is the beginning of knowledge’ [Mishlei 1:7]. ... The genuine type [of fear] is that which makes a man fear his Master because He is a powerful ruler, the rock and foundation of all the worlds, before Whom all existing things are as nothing, as it is said: ‘All the inhabitants of the earth are as nothing’ [Daniel 4:32]” (Zohar 1:11b). It says that “the fear of Hashem” – not “the fear of punishment” – is the beginning of wisdom, for that is the main thing. The fear of punishment is only secondary, not essential in any way. Hence when the Children of Israel were frightened, G-d said to them: “I am Hashem your G-d” – be careful that your fear is not of great thunder and punishment, but of Me, for I am great and powerful. I have brought you out of the land of Egypt, and I have done for you what no one else could.
In fact the Sages say, “Previously, no slave could escape from Egypt, which was sealed tight. Yet now, G-d brought out 600,000 men from Egypt” (Mechilta Yitro, Amalek 1).
No Other Fear in the Heart
This is why G-d ordered us to fear Him, whereas a king of flesh and blood does not need to do so, for the fear that he arouses is not the same as the fear of G-d. People only fear and respect a mortal king because of the possibility of punishment. Such is not the case with the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. The fear of punishment is not so important with G-d, the main thing being to fear Him to such an extent that no other fear can exist in the heart. The Sages have said, “A certain disciple was once following Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yossi, in the market place of Zion. The latter noticed that he looked afraid, and he said to him: ‘You are a sinner, for it is written: “Sinners in Zion are afraid” [Isaiah 33:14].’ He replied: ‘But it is written: “Happy is the man who always fears” [Mishlei 28:14].’ He replied, ‘That verse refers to words of Torah’ ” (Berachot 60a).
King David said, “Even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Tehillim 23:4). Hence G-d told the Children of Israel: “What does Hashem your G-d ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d” – I ask that you remove fear from your heart and that you fear Me alone. This is not a fear of punishment, but a fear of Hashem. You must only fear Hashem your G-d without worrying about anything else in the world.
This is why the Sages say, “Is the fear of Heaven such a small thing? … Yes, for Moshe it was a small thing!” (Berachot 33b). The commentators object to this, nothing that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to the Children of Israel, not just to Moshe. Therefore why say “only to fear,” which implies that it was a small thing? The answer is that since Moshe removed all fear from his heart and left only the fear of G-d, for him it was a small thing. If the Children of Israel had done the same, this fear would also have been a small thing for them. Hence Moshe told them, “What does Hashem your G-d ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in all His ways, and to love Him and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.”