This week begins the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus, which opens with the Jewish people’s slavery and redemption from Egypt and concludes with the completion of the Tabernacle.
As the story commences, Pharaoh had just decided to reduce the number of Jews in Egypt by secretively employing the services of the midwives who were instructed to kill the infant boys. Since babies occasionally die at birth, no one would suspect the conspiracy. The Torah says (Exodus 1:15-17):
ספר שמות פרק א
(טו) וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאַחַת שִׁפְרָה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָה
(טז) וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת הָעִבְרִיּוֹת וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם אִם בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ וְאִם בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה
(יז) וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְלֹא עָשׂוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ אֶת הַיְלָדִים
15) The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah, – 16) “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, kill him, and if it is a daughter, let her live.” 17) But the midwives feared Hashem and they did not do as the king of Egypt told them, and they caused the boys to live.
Who were Shifrah and Puah? The Sages teach us that they are nicknames for Yocheved (Moshe and Aharon’s mother) and Miriam (their older sister). Shifrah comes from the word “to beautify.” Because Yocheved would clean and beautify the babies, she was called Shifrah; Miriam who would “pooh” and make other calming noises to the babies to quiet them down, was called Puah.
But not only did they defy Pharaoh by not killing the baby boys, they, at the risk of their own lives, even helped the babies to live. Indeed, when confronted by Pharaoh, they “explained” that they couldn’t reach the Jewish women quickly enough before they gave birth. As a reward for their heroic deeds, Hashem rewarded them by causing the Jewish nation to proliferate even more. As it says in the verse (Exodus 1:20),
(כ) וַיֵּיטֶב אֱלֹהִים לַמְיַלְּדֹת וַיִּרֶב הָעָם וַיַּעַצְמוּ מְאֹד
20) Hashem benefited the midwives, and the nation became numerous and strong.
Their greatest possible reward that Hashem could give these special midwives was that Jewish mothers have even more babies for them to deliver.
How did these women have the courage not only to deliberately defy the king’s order, but, instead, to actually help the babies live? What was their secret?
The Torah revealed it to us in the words, “But the midwives feared Hashem.” Their fear of Hashem guided their actions.
How remarkable! Here they were, performing the ultimate kindness to the Jewish mothers- saving their baby boys- and giving life to the newborn babies, and yet it was “fear of Hashem” that was foremost in their minds? Why wouldn’t their heroic acts of kindness themselves suffice to keep them from killing the babies? What role did “fear of Hashem” play?
In today’s world, especially those privileged to live in America (“the land of the free”),acting out of fear seems to violate our sense of freedom. If I am bound to do something because I am afraid of someone rather than purely voluntarily, my “freedom” has been curtailed against my will. This rubs us the wrong way.
We prefer to do things out of love — because we want to do them. We appreciate the merit of the deed either for ourselves or for others. Therefore, out of love for ourselves or the other, we willingly do what we “want” to do. “I am doing this because I see fit to do it, not because of pressure that is exerted upon me.” Being completely altruistic, appears to be a higher level of motivation.
Yet, the Torah praises the midwives for their “fear of Hashem,” touting fear over the immense love that they were demonstrating in saving the babies.
We find this same question in regard to Avraham our Forefather after he passed the most difficult test, being prepared to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak to fulfill Hashem’s will. In so doing, Avraham demonstrated that his love for Hashem superseded his paternal love for his son Yitzchak, and yet, after all is done, the angel tells Avraham (Genesis 22:12),
כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי
12) I now know that you are a G-d fearing man, since you did not withhold your one and only son from me.
Hashem, once again, lauds Avraham for his fear of Hashem, rather than his immense love for Him. How remarkable! But, how are we to understand this? Where did Hashem see Avraham’s fear of Him exceeding his overwhelming love for Him?
The Malbim’s commentary provides us with the insight necessary to understand the answer to this question. He explains that Hashem had two tests in mind when He told Avraham to bring his son Yitzchak upon the altar.
After Avraham had fulfilled Hashem’s commandment to bring his son to the altar and bind him there as a sacrifice, just as he was about to slaughter him, Hashem sent an angel to stop Avraham.
(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה
12) And he (the angel) said, “don’t stretch out your hand to the lad or do anything to him.”
Rashi quotes the Midrash that reveals the conversation that went on behind the scenes between Avraham and Hashem at this point.
כי עתה ידעתי – א”ר אבא, א”ל אברהם אפרש לפניך את שיחתי אתמול אמרת לי כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע וחזרת ואמרת קח נא את בנך עכשיו אתה אומר לי אל תשלח ידך אל הנער אמר לו הקב”ה לא אחלל בריתי ומוצא שפתי לא אשנה כשאמרתי לך קח מוצא שפתי לא אשנה לא אמרתי לך שחטהו אלא העלהו אסקתיה אחתיה:
Rabbi Abba said: Avraham said to Hashem. “I don’t understand. Yesterday You told me that Yitzchak would carry forth my legacy. Then you told me to bring him as a sacrifice, and now you are telling me not to slaughter him? (It seems like You are changing Your mind, not something a G-d should do) Hashem responded, “I will not abrogate my covenant (That Yitzchak will carry on your legacy) and I don’t change My words. When I told you to take him, I didn’t say to slaughter him, just to ‘bring him up’. You’ve brought him up, now take him down.”
Here, Hashem revealed to Avraham that He never intended him to slaughter his son, just to place him on the altar. Hashem was very precise in His wording when He said (Genesis 22:2), והעלהו שם לעולה “And bring him up there as an offering” with no mention of actually slaughtering him.
Right from the start, we see that Hashem had no intention of having Avraham kill Yitzchak. Rather Hashem wanted him to bring him up, and then take him down.
How Avraham would react when told that he should not kill his son was the second part of the test. The first part, putting him on the altar, could give Avraham no personal benefit, so it was certainly done purely to fulfill Hashem’s commandment. But, in taking him down from the altar, which would give him the great joy of having his beloved son, would he also do that strictly to follow Hashem’s commandment instead of for his own personal benefit? Or, would he rejoice that he could still have his son, take him down as quickly as possible, breathe a sigh of relief, and call it a close call?
The Torah reveals that Avraham passed this test as well.
The angel had to tell Avraham (verse 12, above), “don’t stretch out your hand to the lad or do anything to him.” Why did he have to add, “or do anything to him?” Rashi explains that Avraham said to Hashem, “Perhaps I should just make a small cut in him to show that I was prepared to sacrifice him?” And Hashem said, “No, do nothing to him.”
We see that Avraham did not jump at the first opportunity to remove Yitzchak from the altar. Rather, he was concerned that perhaps he had let Hashem down and that he was being told to take him down because he had failed in his mission. The fear that Avraham experienced was one that grew out of his tremendous love for Hashem; it was the fear of having disappointed Him. But Hashem told him, much to the contrary. “I never intended for you to kill him. I wanted to see how you would react when I told you not to kill him. This was also part of my test. I now know that your every act is done out of fear and obedience to My will. Everything you did, even withholding slaughtering your son, was out of fear of Me; with the pure intention of fulfilling my commandment to you.”
This type of fear is one that grows out of the great love, as fear and love are often deeply intertwined. For example, a father sees his toddler running into an unsafe situation and he fears that he may get hurt. The greater his love for the child, the greater the fear he will experience. Similarly, Avraham’s great love for Hashem brought him to fear that perhaps he had let Hashem down.
It is this fear that was also at play with Shifra and Puah. The Chafetz Chaim explains that the midwives’ fear of Hashem was manifest in their not resigning their positions. They were concerned that perhaps a lesser person would take the job and actually kill the baby boys. Because of their intense love for Hashem and their fear that His will would not prevail, they stayed in their positions, risking their lives.
On this level, because the fear emanates from the highest level of love, it is clear to see how it does not infringe on the individual’s free will. On the contrary, because of his love for the other and his great desire to please him, he also has the inborn fear of failing and disappointing that individual. This is his choice.
This type of fear can be attributed only to individuals as great in their love of Hashem as Avraham, Shifra, Puah, and their ilk.
There is a type of fear of Hashem relevant to every Jew, and it is mentioned many times in the Torah. They are Deuteronomy 4:10, 5:26, 6:24, 14:23, 17:19, 28:58, 31:13. Each of these verses urges us to fear Hashem so that we do not veer off the Torah path to follow our selfish desires or other gods.
For example, Deuteronomy 5:26:
(כו) מִי יִתֵּן וְהָיָה לְבָבָם זֶה לָהֶם לְיִרְאָה אֹתִי וְלִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתַי כָּל הַיָּמִים לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָהֶם וְלִבְנֵיהֶם לְעֹלָם
26) Hashem says: I wish their hearts would fear me and keep all my commandments like this forever, so that I should be able to bestow my goodness upon them and their children forever.
This fear should work like the natural fear that a person feels when he is about to do something that he perceives as being dangerous to his wellbeing. Jumping from a high diving board, or climbing a high ladder, can be very scary to a person, and he will experience natural fear before doing either of those endeavors. The “fun” of an amusement park roller coaster is conquering the natural fear that one has before mounting the scary ride. Hashem placed this mechanism into a person to help him avoid dangerous situations.
In the same way, we should be afraid to commit a sin because it is detrimental to our spiritual health no less than a dangerous activity is to our physical health. Just as we naturally recoil from danger to our person, we should have the same reaction to sin.
Unfortunately, fear of Hashem is not “natural;” it is something we must create and cultivate within ourselves. How do we go about doing that?
Perhaps we can derive a hint from Deuteronomy 10:12, which says:
(יב) וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ
12) Now, Israel, 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 to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul.
The Talmud asks, (Berachot 33b)
רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים שנאמר ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא והאמר רבי חנינא משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים שנאמר יראת ה’ היא אוצרו אין לגבי משה מילתא זוטרתא היא
What do you mean, “All that Hashem asks of us is just to fear Him” as if it’s a small matter? The most important thing to Hashem is our fear of Him! The Talmud answers that for Moshe, who wrote this statement, fear of Hashem was very easy.
Why was it that “fear of Hashem” was a small matter to Moshe? He was in heaven for a total of 120 days and was able to obtain a very clear picture of Hashem’s awe. His image of Hashem was so great that he was naturally in reverence of Him.
We, however, do not have such a close image of Hashem. We are constantly working to make Hashem’s reality closer and closer to our perspective of the world. The more Torah we learn and the more mitzvot we perform, the closer we get to Hashem and the more of a reality He becomes to us. The more of a reality Hashem is to us, the more we can fear Him.
Our Sages explain that that there are two levels of יראת שמים – fear of Hashem. The higher level is to fear Hashem because of who He is: Omnipotent and in complete control of every detail of our lives. The lesser level is to fear Hashem because He can punish us and make life uncomfortable if we disobey Him. We start with the lower level, and work up to the higher level. It is a lifelong project.
Fear of Hashem is a necessary component of our relationship with Hashem because if our relationship is based on love alone, we may tend to take liberties that we should not. Similar to a child who knows that his parents love him, and takes advantage of that to do as he pleases. He even goes against their best wishes, knowing that, because they love him, he will likely get away with it. In this way, he ends up doing things that are not good for him. Fear, puts a hard stop to this feeling of liberty. When the parent tells the child, “You must not do that again, for if you do, you will suffer the following consequence,” the child is less likely to transgress the will of the parent.
The same is true of fear of Hashem. Fear can help us stay in line and not take liberties we should not.
When we understand “fear of Hashem” in this way, we realize that it also is not designed to curtail our freedom; rather, it is here to help us make the right choices with our freedom of choice.