Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"The Midwives Feared G-d"


By Rabbi Tanchum Burton


And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses. (Exodus
1:21)

The midwives spoken of in this verse, are Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of 
Moshe Rabbenu respectively (Sotah 11b). We know that what precedes this verse is an account of these midwives’ refusal to murder all male Jewish newborns in accordance with
the decree of Pharaoh--as well as their continued assistance to birthing mothers and these newborns. Yet, the verse does not say “because of the midwives’ refusal...”; rather “because the midwives feared G-d...” Their defiance of Pharaoh, therefore, was a manifestation of something much further reaching: their yir’as shomayim, their fear of G-d. Why specifically the fear of G-d? Why wasn’t this expressed as their obedience of G-d?

There is a certain phrase that appears several times in the Torah, namely, “...and you shall fear your G-d, I am the L-rd”. All of these instances are in the Book of Leviticus, and all of them have to do with situations where it would be possible for a sinner to get away with his act unnoticed by his fellow human beings, such as cursing a deaf person, or placing a stumbling block before a blind person. The deaf person does not hear the insult, nor does the blind person see the treachery; he cannot link the stumbling block to the one who placed it there. Yet, we are warned, “and you shall fear your G-d...” in order to tell us that even when others do not hear or see, G-d does see. We are seen. The awareness of this, and it’s power in helping us refrain from doing the wrong thing is called yir’as shomayim, the fear of G-d.

If you have ever watched a birth, you know that a birthing woman’s focus is taken up almost entirely by the pains of labor, even after the baby is born. A midwife under orders from a bloodthirsty dictator would have no problem attributing the death of the infant to complications” if she chose to fulfill such a macabre decree. In all situations where power can be abused at little or no cost to the abuser, yir’as shomayim is the essential ingredient in the maintenance of the right and the good. It was this quality that Yocheved and Miriam possessed in great measure, which allowed them to place sacred values above their own survival. Therefore, the Torah tells us, “G-d made them houses”.

This cryptic term “houses”, refers to the “houses” that descended from Yocheved and Miriam. 
These are the House of Priesthood and the House of Levi from Yocheved, and the House of Kingship, which is linked to Miriam through King David, her descendant (See Targum Yonason on the verse, and Shemos Rabbah 1:15). The Maharal (Gur Aryeh al HaTorah on the verse) notes that the term “house” denotes an item that has both inclusiveness and permanence. A house contains all of its contents, bringing order and unity to what would have been a random array of objects. A house is usually constructed in such a way that it will stand permanently.

The houses of the Kohanim and the Leviim are inclusive in that they contain all of their 
members; the kingship is inclusive in that the king is a central, unifying factor over all of the people under his tutelage. They are permanent in the sense that Kohen and Levite status is passed down forever through the generations. Although technically, the kingship can pass from one family to another, if the king’s son is suitable, he inherits it. These three items are like pillars which support the nation of Israel for all time.

In Likutei Moharan (I:10:3), Rebbe Nachman z”l cites a passage in the Talmud (Pesachim 
88a) which describes three levels of prayer: Avraham’s, which is referred to as “mountain”, Yitzchok’s, which is referred to as “field”, and Yaakov’s, which is referred to as “house”. These levels relate to the accessibility of prayer. The mountain must be climbed; the field can be easily reached but offers no protection; the house can be easily entered and shelters whomever is there. Thus, Yaakov created a path that is the most accessible to the people of the world. Rebbe Nachman relates that this is the desired goal, to bring prayer down to earth, so to speak, so that a person can naturally and easily enter the conversation with G-d. The more democratic this house is, the more G-d’s glory is revealed.

The Holy Temple represents this house, a place for the indwelling of the Divine Presence, 
where all peoples of the world can connect to and give glory to G-d, as the verse states, “for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). This sublime future will be the fruit of our holy bubbes’ self-sacrifice and yir’as shomayim.

May we be blessed to experience the pleasantness of “sitting in the house of the L-rd, all the 
days of [our] live[s],” (Psalms 27:4) in the great merit of Yocheved and Miriam.

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