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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: The Knot on the Midwives' string of pearls
"Why ask whether someone 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 to conduct oneself with 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 could well bring someone to secretly kill the husband and take 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 ready to endanger themselves and selflessly save all the Jewish males born at the time.
Imagine someone who saved countless young children that were in great danger. Everyone would agree that this person deserves to be honoured and repaid in the most generous way. If someone would ask "But is this person a G'd-fearing person?" No doubt people 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?" However, we find such a situation in the Torah.
Shifrah and Puah
At the beginning of this week's Parasha, the Torah relates 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 (see Rashi Shemos 1:7). In recognition of their selfless conduct, 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 the mother and sister of Moses, Yocheved and Miriam. The reward of "houses" does not refer to not mere buildings of brick and wood, but that they became ancestress of two special households. Yocheved, the mother of Moses and Aaron, was rewarded that her children were Kohanim and Levites. And Miriam merited to have the royal lineage of King David as her offspring. But 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 a person's fear of G'd and his general conduct. In Parashas Eikev, 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. Our sages point out that just to fear G'd is not a minor thing (see Berachot 33b). How much more is it a major undertaking with the list of obligations that follows.
Knot in the string of pearls
In the introduction to The Way of the Righteous the author describes that all good character traits are comparable to a string of pearls. But the knot that keeps all the pearls in place is a person's fear of G'd. As long as the knot is in place, everything else will be in the proper way and measure. But if a person has no fear of G'd, even if one has a good character, one will not necessarily be able to apply the right conduct in a given situation. This is especially true in difficult times. Without "fear of G'd", one will not be strong enough to overcome one's tests and trials.
As a case in point, we find that when Abraham came to Philistine he felt it necessary to say that 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 could well bring someone to secretly kill the husband and take 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 worst inhumane beasts ever seen. It is no secret that the Nazi philosophy of the "master race", that justified their atrocities as the survival of the fittest, was based on Darwin's Theory of Evolution. When there is no belief in G'd, there is obviously no fear of G'd.
This is the sequence of the above verse. 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 your love will bring you to 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 your fear of Heaven be as strong as you fear of human beings." The surprised disciples said to him: "Is that all?". The Sage responded, "Yes, would it only be so. For you shall know, when a person does something wrong he says, 'I hope no one sees me.'" Rabbi Yochanan taught his 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 how the Chofetz Chaim was once being taxied in a two-man horse cart. The driver, who did not recognize his distinguished passenger, suddenly stopped by an apple orchard and jumped off the cart, looking for anyone 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 comes, call out to warn me", he barked at his passenger. The driver had not taken more than a few steps when the Chofetz Chaim called 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. "Oh, yes", said the Chofetz Chaim, "G'd was watching you." The words of the Chofetz Chaim struck a deep chord in the driver's soul. He took a hard look at his passenger and recognized that he was transporting the Holy Chofetz Chaim. Immediately, he begged the Chofetz Chaim for forgiveness and promised never to steal anything for the rest of his life.
Consequence of every act
In order to do only what G'd allows, and never transgress any of His commandments, we must train ourselves to live with a constant awareness that every act we do 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 excuse 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 are about to do in front of the Heavenly Court then go ahead and do it. But if you are not sure that it will be accepted there, you better refrain from doing it." This is what it means to live with a constant fear of G'd.
Says Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian: "This is what the Torah teaches us about the Jewish midwives in Egypt." Only because of their strong fear of G'd were they ready 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.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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