Weekly Torah Commentary — Shemot January 4, 2013

This week we begin the study of the second book of the Torah, Shemot/Exodus.

The children of Israel multiplied in the land of Egypt and a new leader arose in Egypt, a Pharaoh of whom it is said that he did not ‘know Joseph’. This new Pharaoh was alarmed at the explosive growth in the population of the Hebrews and he said to his people:

“Come, let us deal wisely with them lest they multiply, and then there will be a war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, and go up from our land.” 1:10

The question begs to be asked: Was there no one in Egypt to remind the new pharaoh of all that Joseph had done for their nation? Was there no one with the courage to defend the descendants of Israel?

According to the Talmud, Pharaoh consulted with Job, Balaam and Yitro (Jethro) before he made the decision to oppress the Hebrews. Balaam who supported Pharaoh’s plan was subsequently killed by the Israelites. Job, who remained silent, later suffered greatly himself. Jethro, we are told, fled from Egypt at that time for he realized that Pharaoh would not be deterred from the plan he had concocted and Jethro preferred to lose his position in the royal court, rather than participate in the persecution of the Hebrews. It is noteworthy that years later, he would be rewarded by becoming the father-in-law and advisor to Moses.

We learn from this that those who support inflicting pain and suffering on others, whether actively like Balaam or passively like Job in the end reap suffering themselves. Those who distance themselves from inflicting pain on others, like Jethro, merit blessings.

We can take this principle a step further. Living as we do in a world filled with violence, it is far too easy to become hardened to the sufferings of others, G-d forbid! We may not be in a position to prevent the suffering (like Jethro) but we must maintain a heart of compassion and sensitivity toward the sufferings of others if we are to be like our Father whose compassion is boundless.

Pharaoh ordered the Jewish midwives to kill all the newborn male babies.

“But the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, and they kept the male babies alive.” 1:17

The midwives, whom the Midrash identifies as Jocheved and Miriam, risked their own lives in order to save thousands of Jewish babies from death. One of those babies was Moses himself, the future deliverer of the children of Israel. Every year when we read this portion, I cannot help but wonder what “deliverers” have been destroyed through the evil of abortion. Surely there is not another Moses, but what future scientist who may have been the one to find the cure for cancer never had the chance to do so? What godly leader who would have had a profound impact on his or her culture, country or tribe was arbitrarily destroyed in his/her mother’s womb? It is written in the Talmud, Sanhedrinm 37a: “Whoever saves one life it is as if he saved an entire world.” All the more so these godly midwives who feared God and refused the evil order of the Pharoah. They saved thousands. The only way two women could demonstrate such bravery in the face of certain death was through their righteous fear and awe of the Holy One of Israel. They have inspired others through the generations, like the righteous Gentiles who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.

There was a time when we heard more teachings and sermons, read more articles and books on the topic of the fear of G-d. It’s not so popular these days. It never is in a society that is more given to self-satisfaction and the pursuit of pleasure.

Jocheved and Miriam remind us this week that the fear of the L-rd is the beginning of wisdom, as Solomon wrote in the Proverbs. A healthy dose of the fear of G-d will keep us from sin, will guard us from unrighteousness and will save us from participating in behavior and actions that are opposed to the Torah of Hashem.

In Tune with Torah this week = reminds us that the righteous fear of the L-rd is a necessary virtue for everyone who desires to walk with G-d and to know His ways. We live in a time when many will be called upon to stand up for what they believe. It behooves each of us to examine our own hearts and prepare ourselves to stand against the tide when necessary and walk in the integrity of heart that is characteristic of someone who knows that to truly love Hashem with all our heart and soul requires that we also have a reverential awe and fear of straying from His revealed will.

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