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Shabbat Parashat Shemot | 5769

What Type of Fear?

Parashat Hashavuah

Paroh commanded the midwives of the Jews in Egypt to kill male newborns. Their fear of G-d kept them from carrying out the decree (Shemot 1: 15-21). There is much discussion as to who the midwives were. Rashi cites an approach in Chazal that they were Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister. This adds historical significance to the event, especially regarding the reward of “houses” they received (ibid.:21). However, it raises difficulties in understanding the story. Abarbanel asks how it is possible that Paroh would have entrusted this unparalleled anti-Jewish crime on righteous Jews. He, therefore, posits that the midwives were Egyptian in charge of the Jewish population. Instead of being Jews who risked their lives to avoid killing Jewish babies, as halacha requires, they were non-Jews who were willing to risk their lives to save Jews.

Professor Nechama Leibowitz builds on this position to describe what is meant by fearing G-d, which is mentioned both in the context of not murdering the babies and in the context of their reward. She cites other examples of fear of G-d regarding non-Jews. Avraham explained to Avimelech that he altered Sarah’s identity because he was afraid that Avimelech’s people lacked fear of G-d (Bereishit 20:11), something which apparently upright non-Jews have. The disguised Yosef told his brothers that he would be fair with them because “I fear G-d” (Bereishit 42:18) and did not think this would give away his identity. Furthermore, Amalek’s hideous violence, for which they are eternally condemned is accompanied by the description, “and he did not fear G-d” (Devarim 25:18). This implies that a normal nation would have fear of G-d. In other words, fear of G-d just refers to a basic commitment to human morality that could be expected of moral non-Jews in addition to those who follow halacha meticulously.

These nice observations, though, steal much deserved “thunder” from Avraham. As he passed the test of akeidat Yitzchak, Avraham was told: “Now I know that you are a G-d fearer” (Bereishit 22:12). Does that mean that previously it was unclear if he was on the level of an average gentile?

A grammatical note seems to answer the question. The general fearing of G-d is described in the verb form or talks about the general existence of fear of G-d. A normal person displays, at least occasionally or under certain circumstances, a level of morality that can be called fear of G-d. However, Avraham was described as a person of fear of G-d. This implies the forging of a personality where in all of one’s actions, he strives to do that which Hashem wants. This we find in Tanach only in a few places: i.e., a qualified judge (Shemot 18:21); Iyov (Iyov 2:3). This level of consistency and dedication is what we should strive for.

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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of Shirley, Sara Rivka bat Yaakov Tzvi HaCohen z”L
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R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga      Brachfeld


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