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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: The Knot on the Midwives' string of pearls
"Why ask whether this person is G'd-fearing when he is being honoured for his selflessness?" The King of Egypt instructed the Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all newborn males. The Torah seems to be saying that G'd is "just" asking something minor. The obligation of how to conduct oneself with all the necessary good character traits is like a string of pearls. But the knot that keeps all the pearls in place is the fear of G'd. The lack of fear of G'd in Philistine would not stop someone from secretly killing the husband and taking his wife. The Nazi philosophy of the survival of the fittest of the master race was based on Darwin's Theory of Evolution. If you "just" have fear of G'd, then your conduct will be correct. Rabbi Yochanan taught his great disciples that a person has to live with a constant awareness of G'd's presence in all places and all situations. Once the Chofetz Chaim was being taxied in a two-man horse cart. We have to live with an awareness that every act has a consequence. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian says that only because of their strong fear of G'd were the midwives able to endanger themselves and selflessly save all the Jewish males born at the time.
If we were to hear about an individual who saved countless lives of young children, who at a time of a catastrophe were at great danger, everyone would agree that this person deserves to be honoured and if possible be repaid in the most generous way. If during a meeting preparing the ceremony to honour this individual, someone would ask "But is this person a G'd-fearing person?", no doubt the other people at the meeting would be surprised about the relevance of that question: "Why ask whether this person is G'd-fearing when he is being honoured for his heroic act of selflessness?"
Shifrah and Puah
However, at the beginning of this week's Torah portion it is related how the King of Egypt instructed the Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all newborn males. The midwives did not follow his instructions. Not only did they not kill them, but as our sages say they went out of their way to care for them and to make sure that they were safe. In recognition of their selfless conduct of saving these children, it says: (Shemos 1:21) "And it was because the midwives feared G'd, and He [G'd] made them houses." Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 11b) that the two midwives were really the mother and sister of Moses, Yocheved and Miriam, and the reward of "their houses" refers to not mere buildings of brick and wood but rather that they merited to be become ancestress to special households. Yocheved, the mother of Moses and Aaron, merited that her offspring were Kohanim and Levites. Miriam merited that one of her granddaughters married into the royal lineage with King David as her offspring.
We see here how G'd's reward was not delivered immediately but rather it manifested itself in generations to come. However, the original question remains: why does the Torah mention their fear of G'd rather than their act of saving lives as the cause of their reward? In order to understand this we must investigate the connection between the fear of G'd and a person's conduct. It says (Devarim 10:12) "And now Israel, what does HASHEM your G'd ask of you. Just 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, to observe the commandments of G'd and His decrees, that I command you today." In the introduction to this passage the Torah seems to be saying that G'd is "just" asking something minor. And then the Torah continues with a long list of obligations. Even the fear of G'd itself is not a minor thing, as our sages mention (see Berachot 33b). But certainly with the continuing list of obligations this is a major life-long undertaking.
Knot in the string of pearls
In the introduction to The Way of the Righteous it is explained that the obligation of how to conduct oneself with all the necessary good character traits is like a string of pearls. But the knot that keeps all the pearls in place is the fear of G'd. As long as the knot is in place, everything else will follow in the proper way and measure. But if there is no fear of G'd, even a person with a good character will not always be able to apply the right conduct in a given situation. Furthermore, in times of tests and trials without having the safety net of the fear of G'd in place, the person may pursue the wrong conduct.
As a case in point, we find that when Abraham came to Philistine he felt it necessary to say that his wife Sarah was his sister. When it was later revealed that she was his wife, the King of the Philistines, Avimelech, asked Abraham why he had not told the truth. To this Abraham answered: (Bereishis 20:11) "Because I said there is but no fear of G'd in this place and they will kill me because of my wife." The land of Philistine had a great civilization and no one would dare to abduct a married woman. However, Abraham knew that his life would be in danger had he revealed that Sarah was married to Him. For the lack of fear of G'd in Philistine would not stop someone from secretly killing the husband and taking his wife.
In modern times, Nazi Germany is another example how the people of one of the most civilized countries in the world turned into the most inhumane beasts ever seen. It is no secret that the Nazi philosophy of the "master race", justifying their atrocities as the survival of the fittest, was based on Darwin's Theory of Evolution. If there is no belief in G'd, there is no fear of G'd.
This is what the Torah teaches us. If you "just" have fear of G'd, then your conduct will be correct; you will walk in the ways of G'd and emulate Him. Eventually, you will love G'd, and out of your love you will serve Him and follow His commandments and decrees.
The Great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai
The Talmud (Berachot 28b) relates that when the Great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was lying on his death bed, his disciples came to take leave of him and asked him for a blessing. The Rabbi blessed them with the following words: "May it be that fear of Heaven should be upon you as much as fear of human beings." The surprised disciples said to him: "Is that all?". The Sage responded, "Yes, would that only be, for you shall know that when a person does a transgression he says, 'I hope no person sees me.'" Rabbi Yochanan taught his great disciples that a person has to live with a constant awareness of G'd's presence in all places and all situations. Just as one would refrain from any wrongdoing if one was being observed by another human being, one has to train oneself to be aware that everything one does is being observed by the Almighty Himself.
The story is told that once the Chofetz Chaim was being taxied in a two-man horse cart. The driver did not recognize his distinguished passenger. Suddenly, the driver stopped by an apple orchard and jumped off the cart, looking for anyone else who might be around. He demanded that the Chofetz Chaim stand guard while he ran into the field to help himself to some of the delicious apples hanging in the trees. "If anyone sees me call out to warn me", he barked at his passenger. The driver had not taken more than a few steps when the Chofetz Chaim yelled out, "Come quick, someone sees you." Immediately, the driver jumped back into the cart and hit his horse to go as fast as it could. As the driver peered over his shoulder to see who was watching him he could not see anyone. The driver stopped the cart and chastised his passenger for giving a false warning. "No one was watching me", declared the driver. "To the contrary", said the Chofetz Chaim, "G'd was watching you." The words of the Chofetz Chaim struck a deep chord in the driver's soul. When he took a hard look at his passenger he recognized that he was transporting the Holy Chofetz Chaim. Immediately, he begged the Chofetz Chaim for forgiveness and promised never to steal anything the rest of his life.
Consequence of every act
In addition to this, in order to conduct ourselves on a constant basis only to do what G'd allows, and never transgress any of His commandments, we have to live with an awareness that every act has a consequence. As the Rambam expounds in the 10th and 11th of the 13 Principles of Faith: "G'd knows all deeds of human beings, and He rewards with goodness to the ones who observe His commandments and He punishes the ones who violate them." The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) teaches that when a person is taken before the Heavenly Court after 120 years, the first questions he will be asked is: "Did you act honestly with your fellow human beings?" and "Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?" Rabbi Elazar Schach, the illustrious Ponevez Rosh Yeshiva, used to tell his students that when they were about to do something that they were not 100% sure was right they should ask themselves: "Will I have an acceptable justification for this act when I will be taken to account before the Heavenly Court." Said Rabbi Schach: "If you feel confident that you can justify what you do then, in that case go ahead and do it. But if you are not sure that it will be accepted then, you better refrain from doing it." This is what it means to live with constant fear of G'd.
Says Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, and this is what the Torah teaches us about the Jewish midwives in Egypt: Only because of their strong fear of G'd were they able to endanger themselves and selflessly save all the Jewish males born at the time. G'd did not reward them just for the act of lovingkindness, but rather for the underlying cause that brought them to this elevated status: their fear of G'd. This was so great that it was not sufficient to just reward them in the present, but in this merit their future generations received the crown of royalty and priesthood.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network