The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live." The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth." And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (Exodus 1:15–21)
Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill the Israelite male infants. By disobeying his order, the midwives risked punishment at the hands of Pharaoh, perhaps even death. Nevertheless, they did not carry out his order to murder the boys. Why not? The Torah tells us that they refused to commit murder because they "feared God."
What does it mean to fear God? Fearing God does not mean that if we break a commandment, lightning will strike us. To fear God means to obey God's law, even if no one would know whether we did or not. To fear God means to obey God's teachings, even if we suffer because of our doing so.
The midwives lived before the time of the giving of the Torah, when Israel had not yet received the command "Thou shalt not murder." Yet they knew that murder was against God's law, and they would not break God's law even if it meant facing Pharaoh's anger.
When someone cheats their fellow, they hope that their misdeed will not be uncovered. They hope that no human being will learn of their dishonesty. Clearly, a cheater does not fear God.
Several years ago, we visited our daughter who was living in San Diego. Every evening our daughter parked her car outside her apartment. One morning, when she came out to the car, there was bad news: her door and fender had been smashed. However, there was also good news: a note was left on the windshield giving the name and telephone number of the offender. I do not know if this man's religious beliefs influenced him to be honest enough to write that note and incur the liability. But I do know that if we were the ones who had damaged someone else's property, then we would have had to write that note. It would not matter whether someone had seen us do the damage; our conscience, in secular terms—or, in Jewish religious biblical terminology, our fear of God—would cause us to do the right thing.
A story is told about a man who owned a beautiful garden and particularly fancied roses. He learned that at a nearby public park there was a strain of roses that he did not have. One morning he rose early and went to the park with his son, where he hoped to appropriate the cherished rose. As they approached the plant, the boy became aware of the purpose of the trip. The father looked first in one direction and then in the other. As he bent down to remove the plant, the boy said, "Father, you forgot something, didn't you?" "What?" asked the father. The boy replied, "You forgot to look up."
We will most likely never be in the position that the midwives in Egypt were when they were ordered to commit murder. Surely there will be times when we are tempted to cut corners, take advantage of a vulnerable person, or be unkind to someone who needs our understanding. But there is a God who lives and to whom we are accountable. If we fear God, we will guard our actions and will live in a way in which we can take pride. Our honest and upright behavior will not depend on whether another human being can see what we do.
By the Way
A person came before Rabbah and said to him: "The head of my town said to me: 'Go and kill so and so, and if not, I will kill you.'" Rabbah said to him: "Let him kill you, and do not kill. Who can say that your blood is redder than the other man's? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a)
Will your fear of God influence your behavior in the following situations? In what ways?
- The fee at your local health club is fifteen dollars per visit. One morning when you arrive, no one is sitting behind the desk. You walk in and use the facilities. No one will charge you a fee if you simply walk out after completing your workout.
- After a collision in which your car is damaged, you take your car to a body shop. The repairman asks if you would like him to include some preexisting dents in his estimate. "After all," he says, "the insurance company will pay for it."
- Your employer gives you two weeks of vacation plus one week for sick leave. When a friend from out of town comes for a visit, you decide to take a day off. If you call in sick, you won't lose a vacation day.
- Someone for whom you performed a service has paid you in cash. If you don't report it on your income tax return, no one will know.
Can you think of other examples of where a fear of God might affect your actions?
Hillel Gamoran, rabbi emeritus of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, teaches rabbinic literature at the University of Washington in Seattle.