Like many young children, I imagined God to be an old man with a white beard living in the clouds – pretty common and basically harmless to one’s development. However, I also imagined that I would be punished if I did anything wrong, that God could see my every move, and so I carried some fear of God with me for quite a while – probably less healthy and less harmless. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, we read a powerful story regarding “fearing God.”
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So, the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” And God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, Adonai established households for them. (Exodus 1:15–21)
Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill the Israelite male infants. By disobeying his order, the midwives risked punishment at the hands of Pharaoh, perhaps even death. Nevertheless, they did not carry out his order to murder the boys. Why not? The Torah tells us that they refused to commit murder because they “feared God.”
So what does it mean to fear God? Rabbi Hillel Gamoran, a treasured rabbi who I met through OSRUI, wrote that fearing God does not mean that if we break a commandment, lightning will strike us. Whew! But it does have a powerful guiding message – To fear God means to obey God’s law, even if no one would know whether we did or not. To fear God means to obey God’s teachings, even if we may need to deal with challenging consequences because of our doing so.
The midwives lived before the time of the giving of the Torah, when Israel had not yet received the command “Thou shalt not murder.” Yet they knew that murder was against God’s law, and they would not break that law even if it meant facing Pharaoh’s anger.
Here at Jeremiah, I have taken the issue of bullying, of exclusionary behavior, of being upstanders rather than bystanders very seriously. Whether it involves children, teens, and adults, we need to pay attention – do we stand by and do nothing when we see cruelty, or do we stand up, speak out and do the right thing, not worrying about the position it may put us in? Shiphrah and Puah believed in God and instinctively knew that murder was wrong. Their courage shows us that when someone is being hurt, we all expect and hope that someone else will step up. One of our most powerful teachings is that if you save one soul, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, it is as if you have saved the world. And if you harm or destroy one soul, in any sense of destruction, it is as if you destroyed the entire world. Shiphrah and Puah instinctively knew that – Sh’mot has much to teach us today.
Let’s look at the lesson in a more basic, everyday manner –
When someone cheats their fellow human being, steals from another, fabricates a cruel rumor about an innocent soul, they most likely hope that their misdeed will not be uncovered, and they hope that no one will learn of their dishonesty. Clearly, someone in this position does not “fear God,” is not listening to the small voice inside, guiding them to do right.
We can all find ourselves in a position when we are challenged and do not “fear” God as we should, not only in our personal interactions but in a situation as the following. In these icy conditions when one’s car can accidentally slide into a parked car – no one is around to witness the damage. Do we do the right thing, do we listen to the small voice inside us and leave a note on the windshield giving our name and number, or do we not. If we “fear” God, if we understand we are commanded by God to do the right thing, if we listen to our conscience, we write that note whether someone had seen us or not.
Ask yourself or engage in conversation with friends or family members – in what are other situations are you encouraged to ‘take the high road’ and do the right thing?
A story is told about a man who owned a beautiful garden and particularly fancied roses. He learned that at a nearby public park there was a strain of roses that he did not have. One morning he rose early and went to the park with his son, where he hoped to appropriate the cherished rose. As they approached the plant, the boy became aware of the purpose of the trip. The father looked first in one direction and then in the other. He looked all around him. As he bent down to remove the plant, the boy said, “Father, you forgot something, didn’t you?” “What?” asked the father. The boy replied, “Not only did you forget to look up, but you forgot to look within.”
We will most likely never be in the position that the midwives in Egypt were when they were ordered to commit murder. Neither will be find ourselves in the position of the Pharaoh’s daughter who courageously rescued that Hebrew baby boy in the basket, knowing her father, whose heart had hardened, had ordered the murder of the Hebrew babies. Her open heart insisted on saving the baby she named, Moses. Surely there will be times when we are tempted to cut corners, even take advantage of a person more vulnerable than ourselves, or sadly be unkind to someone who needs our understanding. But there is a God who lives and to whom we are accountable. If we ‘fear God,’ if we listen to the still, small voice within, we will guard our actions and we will live in a way in which we can take pride. Then we can make a difference in the lives of those around us. Our honest and upright behavior will not depend on whether another human being can see what we do; doing right is its own reward. May each of us follow our good instincts, avoid the heaviness of guilt and the damage that it can do to our souls, “fear” God in its real message, and continue to do our part to make our personal world and this earth a better place. Ken yihi ratzon. Shabbat Shalom.