“The midwives feared Hashem, and they didn’t do as the king had commanded them, and they caused the boys to live” (Shemos 1:17).
Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of men, said (Mishlei 2:4-5), “If you seek it as if it were silver, if you search for it as if it were hidden treasures, you will understand the fear of Hashem.”
R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto notes in his introduction to Mesilas Yesharim that Shlomo HaMelech doesn’t say a person will understand science, medicine, or philosophy, but that he will understand yiras Hashem. In order to understand yiras Hashem, a person must seek it out and search for it as he would hidden treasures.
The mitzvah of fearing Hashem is mentioned often in the Torah. But why do we need this mitzvah? Who doesn’t fear Hashem?
R’ Nissim Yagen explains that there are different levels of yiras shamayim. There is the ultimate fear of G-d, which is pure and genuine, and then there is the bogus fear of Hashem. To understand the contrast, consider the difference between real diamonds and cubic zirconia. How can one differentiate between the two?
A diamond is one of the hardest substances in the world. If the gritty side of sandpaper is rubbed against it, the diamond will be unaffected, and remain in perfect condition. Furthermore, if a diamond is exposed to the heat of a flame for 30-45 seconds and then dropped in icy water, it won’t react to the extreme temperature change. However, cubic zirconia becomes scratched if rubbed by sandpaper and will break or shatter from the extreme change in temperature.
Similarly, the sincerity of one’s yiras shamayim can only be measured under duress. If a person withstands challenges – a job loss, shalom bayis problems, illness, etc. – and doesn’t fall apart or lose his emunah, his faith and fear of Hashem are genuine.
It’s one thing to do mitzvos and have faith in Hashem when life is peaceful. It’s another thing entirely to do mitzvos and have faith when put to the test.
When Pharaoh decided that every male Jewish newborn should be thrown into the river, he summoned the two Jewish midwives to the palace. He didn’t trust an emissary to convey the decree; he wanted to personally issue it to ensure that it was heeded.
As we know, there are no superfluous letters in the Torah. And yet, the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Yocheved and Miriam allowed the boys to live even though it already told us that they didn’t follow the king’s command. Why? If they didn’t listen to the king, they obviously allowed the boys to live.
But the Torah adds these words to highlight the fact that “the midwives feared Hashem.” Although Yocheved and Miriam had no intention of implementing the king’s decree, they could have run away to save their lives. They knew, however, that if they did, Pharaoh would simply have gotten other people to execute his plan. So not only were they prepared to die to save the baby boys, but they actually provided for their wellbeing and helped them stay alive.
As a result, Yocheved and Miriam were rewarded with the dynasties of kehunah, leviyim, and kingship for eternity. They earned these rewards, not because of their selfless dedication to save the children from death; rather, as the Torah states, “And it was because the midwives feared Hashem that He made them houses” (Exodus 1:21). We thus learn that every good deed a person does must emanate from yiras Hashem.
R’ Mendel of Riminov and the Ohev Yisroel once came to visit the Chozeh of Lublin in Lanzut, Poland, for Shabbos. Thousands of people living in the surrounding areas came to spend Shabbos with these distinguished tzaddikim.
The maskilim (adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment movement who had cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos) were very upset by this development, so one of them went to a government official and claimed the leaders were misleading the community and feeding them lies.
As the three tzaddikim sat together at one of the meals, a troop of officers arrived to arrest them. All those present were overcome with fear and couldn’t imagine why they had been targeted. Although they tried to dissuade the officers from making the arrest, they were unsuccessful, and no appeal could be made the following day as it was a national holiday.
Two days later, the three rabbis were brought before a judge. R’ Mendel of Riminov was chosen to be the rabbis’ spokesman, as he was the most fluent of the three in the Polish language.
“We faithfully serve the Holy One blessed be He with purity of thought,” he explained to the judge. “We came here to learn from our elder, the great Chozeh of Lublin, who is the most erudite and well-informed of us concerning this service of G-d.”
“Why are you dressed in white?” demanded the judge.
“And why is our master, the judge, wearing black?” retorted R’ Mendel.
This response greatly angered the judge, and he shouted, “Do you know before whom you’re standing?”
“Indeed,” answered R’ Mendel, “we are very aware before whom we stand. And if the judge continues to speak to us in such a harsh manner, we won’t answer.”
With that, R’ Mendel removed the shtreimel he was wearing, and his shining countenance was revealed in full. It was so awe-inspiring that the judge was taken aback. He recognized that the three individuals before him were of unusual stature and was overcome with apprehension and trembling. With great difficulty, he said, “You are free. Go home all three of you. I want nothing to do with people like you ever again.”