My in-laws are the only religious Jews in their building in Jerusalem. One of the apartments in their building is owned by a woman who lives in Tel Aviv, but rents out her apartment. In recent years, she became more religious and decided that she needed mezuzot on her rental. She asked my father-in-law to arrange that mezuzas be affixed in her apartment. He explained the obligation of mezuzot is on the tenants, not the owner. The owner replied that the tenant is irreligious and won’t do it. So he approached the tenant himself with mezuzot in hand, and explained that the landlord requests mezuzot in the apartment. The irreligious tenant was taken aback: "For what!? I don't need protection from the boogeyman! What nonsense!" My father-in-law requested that the tenant comply, just out of kindness to the owner. The tenant then begrudgingly complied. When my father-in-law began to affix the mezuza, the tenant interrupted, “Wait! Isn’t there a bracha?” My father-in-law said “Yes, would you like to say it?” The tenant replied, “But I don't have a kippa.” My father-in-law removed his own kippa, “You can borrow mine.” The tenant took the kippa and said, "Well, if we are already doing it, then we might as well do it correctly!"
This funny story actually gives food for thought: How many of us are going through the motions and rituals “just in case”? “Just in case” when we get to the other side, we see it was really true. Maybe we remember that life is fleeting and physical pleasures are not worth the risk of forfeiting the world to come. Maybe we feel empty inside without a spiritual more meaningful existence. Maybe we "find religion" as a way to cope with the complexity of existence. Maybe Torah learning numbs the inner voice that tells us we are not productive human beings. These ideas all sound like the tenant in this story.
In the opening of Mishneh Torah, the רמב"ם explains: The foundation of foundations and firmest pillar of all wisdom is, To know that there is a First Being, that He caused all beings to be, and that all beings from heaven and earth, and from between them, could not be without the truth of His Own Being.
The רמב"ם tells us we must KNOW. But how can one know? We are not born knowing. In order to know, we must learn. We must learn from seforim and teachers. We must surround ourselves with the right people. A person is a product of his environment. The wisdom learned depends on the competence of the teacher and the diligence of the pupil. We have an inner intellect, which can identify what is correct or more correct then the other. However, without being taught, we would remain ignorant. It is necessary that we be taught, and on the basis of those teachings, we gain the wisdom that resonates within our inner being.
A person born with a mathematical mind will go farthest studying under an experienced teacher who can open windows of opportunity. If this same person studied under a less capable teacher, the student would underperform. All the great thinkers and philosophers of all the generations studied under great teachers. They were products of the cumulative wisdom from before their time. Their contributions were merely a small step forward from the secrets discovered before them.
This is what it means, that יראת השם היא חכמה. Awareness of Hashem is a wisdom. It is something that needs to be taught. A person born into a home in Mea Shearim, would’ve come out very differently if he had been born into a Christian home in Missouri. .We are a product of our environment. This is not only true in relation to the competence of the teacher, it is just as true in relation to the confidence of the teacher. A professor can be a brilliant intellectual, but if he is not himself fully confident, it will be sensed by the student and it will impact the acquisition of that particular moral outcome. Since a person is a product of his environment, everything that is gleaned from that environment will affect him.
Everyone has someone they respect. Everyone is being influenced by someone. When we realize that our thinking is a product of what we where taught, we also realize that the teacher is imperative to the student. Without the teacher, the wisdom becomes cloudy. It is possible to ignore it. However, it will eventually make its impact in one subtle form or another, like the secular tenant of the story. It’s our job to place ourselves in the environment that can best produce a true independent understanding of the world we live in. The Torah is our guide. And through the Torah, we all can come to a ידיעה in the בורא.