In our previous class we explored how, as a result of the work of the
midwives Shifrah and Puah, God multiplied the Jewish people during their
enslavement in Egypt. The following class examines the character trait, "fear
of God," which is key to understanding the greatness of the midwives
(referred to here by their Hebrew names, Miriam and Yocheved), as well as the
nature of their reward.
(The Jewish definition of "fear of God" implies an understanding of the
greatness of God. "Fear of God" has several levels, the lowest being fear of
punishment or Divine retribution. This level is seen only as a first step
towards a higher ability to remain constantly in awe of the Divine and to
conduct one's life according to this awareness. In other words, according to
the Jewish definition, the highest expression of "fear" is awe.)
Yocheved and Miriam possessed many beautiful character traits including,
faith in Hashem, kindness, an unwavering belief in a better future and
courage in the face of adversity. But none of these traits is mentioned in
the Torah. Instead the text tells us: "...it was because the midwives
feared God that He made them houses" (Shemos 1:21) and "...the midwives
feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they
caused the boys to live" (Shemos 1:17).
The "houses" - God's reward to the midwives for their perfect fear of Him
-were the dynasties of: Priests (Kehunah) and Levites (Leviah) who served in
the Temple, as well as Kings (Malchut), including the House of King David,
for Yocheved and Miriam, respectively.
Why is "fear of God" seen as the source of the midwives' behavior and why is
it considered so fundamental to the Jewish greatness they embody?
On a simple level, fear of God and Torah wisdom are connected. Since Torah
deals with all aspects of life, it imparts wisdom about how to live properly.
At cross-purpose to acquiring this wisdom, however, is the ongoing
temptation to do what we want to do, rather than what the Torah tells us to
do. "Fear of God" is what ultimately prevents us from turning away from
To illustrate: our sages tell us that when a person leaves this world, God
asks him six questions including, "were you honest in business, did you study
Torah, did you wait for the Messiah?" If a person is on the level that he
can truly respond "yes" to all six questions, he is then asked, "were you
God-fearing?" If he says "no," he is told that all six previous answers are
worthless without the fear of God. This seems somewhat bewildering. Why are
six accomplishments insignificant in the face of this one specific failure?
Heavenly judgement is based on the quality of the relationship between man
and God. The better the relationship, the greater the guarantee that a
person will do the right thing for the right reasons, especially under dire
circumstances. This is so, because a person may abandon his or her good
intentions under duress and come to act improperly, unless there is a solid
relationship with God and an unflagging commitment to Divine will.
to be able to do the right thing, especially in adversity, one's actions must
transcend self-interest or fear of consequence. The only basis for this
strength is fear of God. When a person's good deeds are completely motivated
by God-given standards, he or she will act correctly, no matter what. Such a
person understands God's awesomeness in a very real way, and will have the
strength to be loyal to His will even in the worst times. This is the essence
of fear of God, which gives permanence to Jewish values, while more
humanistic values and definitions of right and wrong vary according to time,
place and human interest.
This is the level of Miriam and Yocheved.
Maintaining one's fear of God has to do with remembering His greatness, at
This was the accomplishment of Miriam and Yocheved, who were in
Egypt during one of the worst eras in the history of the Jewish Nation. At
this time, Egypt was indebted to the Jews, because Joseph had saved the
country from devastating famine. Pharoah was, nonetheless, threatened by the
Jewish population's miraculous growth and strength (God was granting multiple
births to Jewish women). The Torah describes Pharoah as "one who did not know
Joseph." Meaning that, in order to serve his own purposes, Pharoah chose to
"forget" Joseph's kindness, because it conflicted with his desire to subdue
the Jewish people.
In the midst of Pharoah's enslavement of the Jews and, specifically, against
the death warrant that Pharoah had ordered the midwives to administer, Miriam
and Yocheved maintained their awe of and attachment to the Divine. Their
fear of G-d motivated them to do the right thing for the Jewish Nation, even
at tremendous risk. While kindness, self-sacrifice and other strengths came
into play, these qualities supported their fundamental commitment to doing
The consistency and permanence of the midwives' commitment to doing the right
thing is key to understanding why God established the "houses" - or dynasties
- of Priests, Levites and Kings from them as a reward. Each of these groups
possess the ability to be completely aware of God at all times, to remain
loyal to His ways and to provide an example to the Jewish people of how to
maintain a proper relationship with God. These houses pass from father to
son - as a birthright - generation following generation. That they will exist
forever is fitting, because "permanence" is behind the consistency and
loyalty to doing the right thing, which is the basis for fear of God. (On a
more mundane level, a house is something of permanence. We move into a house
with the intention to create a longstanding dwelling. In much the same way,
fear of God, at its highest, is longstanding).
These aspects of "house" express Miriam's and Yocheved's devotion to their
people, because of their fear of God. In return, He rewarded them with the
power of Jewish continuity, and the recognition that the Divine is at the
center of Jewish life for all time.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.