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Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear And Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told,

“the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9], began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

We are reminded, here, that essential to the practice of Judaism is upholding principles of justice and morality. The “fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity demanding such ethical behavior. And though this might be a step above the aforementioned fear of direct Divine retribution, it still leaves the midwives’ feat to be selfishly motivated by their fear of breaking from their religious standards, of betraying their loyalty, and not by saving lives. At the same time, while this interpretation helps us see God as the moral compass of Creation (rather than a vengeful narcissist,) God’s sword of justice is still what compels one’s faithfulness.

The Hebrew offers a third layer of understanding. Narrowly translated as “Fear of God,” the Torah’s expression “Yirat Elohim” has far broader implications. Elohim is the name of God in the plural. It represents the world of plurality, of duality; God in Its finite expression as Creation itself. It is the Divine Being in Its immanent aspect, manifesting as every being, and every form. Yirah, for its part, is often translated as “awe” instead of “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression of God, God manifest. The midwives felt with every child they helped birth a profound sense of awe, a reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. It wasn’t any ego fear-based motivation that compelled them to act. Theirs wasn’t even a moral act. Action was simply a natural extension of their awareness, their wakefulness; it knew no reason, needed no explanation. It just was.

May we and all beings awaken to Yirat Elohim, this open-hearted state of awe recognizing the Presence of the One in every one; that our world be a world where no child can ever be murdered again.