Friday, January 1, 2016

Parsha Shemot: How True Fear and Reverence of G-d Shape Religious Behavior

Infanticide is a deeply disturbing act, all the more so when it is done en masse. However, this is the sort of depravity that the Pharaoh commits in this week's Torah portion. The new Pharaoh looked around and realized that the Israelite people became "too numerous" (Exodus 1:9). As a result, he enslaved them and forced them to do backbreaking labor (1:11). However, it wasn't enough to oppress them because greater oppression just lead to greater disdain for the Israelites (1:12). The Pharaoh felt the need to kill all the newborn, male Israelites (1:16). The Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, disobeyed the Pharaoh's command. Interestingly enough, the midwives were not punished. For their behavior, G-d established households for them (1:21). Knowing the risks, what was so powerful that the midwives put their lives on the line? What words does the Torah use to praise the midwives?

ותיראן המילדת את האלהים ולא עשו כאשר דבר אליהן מלך מצרים ותחיין את הילדים.
The midwives, fearing G-d, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. -Exodus 1:17

In Judaism, the quality that is attributed to the midwives is referred to as יראת השם (yirat Hashem) or יראת השמים (yirat Shamayim). The word יראת can mean fear, so when we are talking about יראת השם or יראת השמים, it is commonly translated as "fear of G-d." This concept is important enough that in Proverbs 1:7, it is considered the beginning of knowledge. However, the word יראת can take on a second meaning, which is closer to "awe" or "reverence." The Rambam explained that יראת comes as a result of appreciating G-d's universe. So which one is it: fear or reverence?

Much of Jewish texts point to the idea that the fear part of יראת should be emphasized. Certainly when discussing divine retribution and punishment, the word יראת unquestionably means "fear." Conversely, when discussing G-d's magnificence, we're talking about "reverence." Finding value in fear is difficult for this generation, especially since it can be viewed as a tool for religious institutions and leaders to acquire a congregant's total obedience and subservience. In spite of fear being abused as a form of manipulation, it does have positive spiritual benefit because it can be used to direct one's service to G-d, provided that one's natural fear can be channeled accordingly. In spite of misuse and manipulation thereof, fear can be a powerful motivator. R. Yitzhak Blazer, who was a disciple of R. Israel Salanter, said that "awe of G-d's majesty is on a more exalted plane than a fear of future accountability." Fear is a foundation, but on top of that foundation, we must place awe (Malbim). Otherwise, fear becomes debilitating.

The word יראת can be fear. It can mean awe. It can be an exquisite blend of both fear and awe. If יראת השם is to reach its full spiritual potential, both fear and reverence need to be in play because true awareness in G-d involves both fear and reverence. As R. Avraham Eliyah Kaplan pointed out, יראת is to see the way things are truly are, without disillusionment or charm. Rather than work in conflict with one another, seeing יראת in this fashion can eliminate the dichotomy between love and fear because both can be channeled towards the same goal of maximizing one's spiritual potential.

Even so, the Torah does not give us enough context to unequivocally determine which translation is correct. However, if I had to surmise which is correct, I would say that the midwives had the type of יראת that was a blend of fear and awe. This story is the first known case of civil disobedience in human history. If it were strict fear, one could remain passive and simply assume the Egyptian tyranny was a form of divine retribution. יראת, regardless of translation, has a built-in awareness of G-d. Murder is a sin that is quite literally unforgivable in Jewish law. Having this sense of G-dliness means doing the right thing, even if that translates into defying the establishment. For the midwives, it did not mean sitting on the sidelines and watch mass murder take place. It meant realizing that G-d has a set of standards for moral behavior, which resulted in doing whatever was within the scope of influence to help mitigate evil. Having a true sense of יראת השם is not exemplified merely in the realm of thought, but also in our acts and how we treat others. If this is to teach us anything, it is that our יראת השם and our awareness of G-d can be best measured in our גמילות חסדים (acts of loving-kindness) and how we treat fellow human beings. Feelings of closeness to G-d might give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but unless our behavior reflects a dedication comparable to that which was exemplified by the midwives, we truly have not understood what it means to have fear and reverence for G-d.

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