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Shemot: Exodua 1:1 – 6:1

“Beyond Fear and Morality”


The Book of Exodus opens with an accounting of the sons of Jacob—the brothers of Joseph—who have been living in Egypt at the invitation of Joseph and with permission from the pharaoh. After that first generation died out, we are told, “the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exod. 1:7). But then, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod.1:8). Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” (Exod. 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: in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, these brave women “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them” (Exod. 1:17). Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God” (Exod. 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 a multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation presumes that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution would be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. In this interpretation, their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving—they were simply choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God that could elicit fidelity only 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 an essential practice of Judaism is adherence to principles of justice and morality. “Fear of God” is equated with the fear of breaking one’s allegiance to a deity who demands 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. 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.

Happily, the Hebrew text 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” rather than “fear.” Yirat Elohim represents the sense of awe one experiences in the realization that everything is an expression, a manifestation of God. The midwives felt with every child they helped to birth a profound sense of awe, a reverence for each new life as a manifestation of the One Life itself. Theirs was not an ego-driven, fear-motivated act. It 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, so that our world might be a world where no child can ever be murdered again.