With the opening of Sefer Sh'mot, the Book of Exodus, the Torah moves from cosmic origins to the role of God in salvation and history. As the Israelites find themselves in a descending spiral of servitude and suffering, their call to God unleashes the ultimate conflict, between the very wellsprings of life and liberation (that we recognize as God) and the embodiment of tyranny and pointlessness epitomized by Pharaoh. This is not merely a contest between two unequal rivals, but the steady opposition of two incompatible ways of organizing one's life, structuring a society, of moving through time. Life vs. death, freedom vs. tyranny, ultimate meaning vs. personal pleasure - these are the archetypal poles between which human destiny plays out.
Into that explosive struggle, the Torah shines a light with the bold courage of the most unlikely of sources: two Hebrew midwives. Birth and death are never far removed from the contest over competing values, and in this epic tale, Pharaoh escalates his forces of death by ordering the midwives to murder the Israelite boys. Even though their instructions come from the world's most powerful despot, "THE MIDWIVES, FEARING GOD, DID NOT DO AS THE KING OF EGYPT HAD TOLD THEM; THEY LET THE BOYS LIVE."
What is the nature of this "fear" that could motivate such courageous dissent? Jewish tradition steps in to make the chasm of Pharaoh's edict and the midwives' stance all the more impressive. Says the Talmud, keeping the boys alive meant that the midwives "supplied them with water and food." The medieval sage Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explains," even more than at first, they now worked with all their strength to save the children." What could motivate such behavior? How can we explain their daring and their disobedience?
There are two ways to understand the yira, the fear, the Torah mentions. Later Jewish traditions (rabbinic, philosophical, and mystical) understood a lower, lesser fear to be the fear of God's punishments for not following the right path. Such a motivation, however compelling, was viewed with some disdain, as not really worthy of the realm of faith and holiness.
What the Zohar calls "holy fear" and what Rabbi Yosef Albo calls "noble fear" is not the fear of consequences. It is awe that emerges from the contemplation of God's incomparability, greatness, and magnificence. Yira as marvel, wonder, awe - that is, for David ibn Daud the "awe of greatness" as opposed to a mere "fear of harm." It was this holy fear that moved these two brave women.
Such awe is different than our common fears. The Hasidic commentary Mei ha-Shiloach notes, "when one fears a person, one cannot remain calm, because fear is the opposite of being calm. However, awe of heaven brings calm to the soul... As the midwives were calm because of their awe of heaven, they did not have any fear of Pharaoh's decrees."
Fear of heaven is a step toward soul liberation. A soul that trembles before human displays of might, power, or influence is one that has not really apprehended the vastness of the cosmos, the frailty of even the most imposing personage, the sheer wonder of life and of being - the greatness of God. To focus the mind on that greatness, to mold one's consciousness around the radical majesty of God's presence - that is the spur which faith offers toward freedom. As the medieval compendium Orhot Tzaddikim realizes, "this fear is really love."
Small wonder, then that this virtue, yirat Shamayim, is so basic: Bahya ben Asher tells us that fear of heaven is "the foundation of the entire Torah," and the Orhot Tzaddikim insists that "the Torah is of no use to an individual but for yirat Shamayim, for it is the very peg upon which everything hangs." The contemporary sage Rabbi Louis Jacobs, insists, "Religion without yirat Shamayim is no more than a sentimental attachment to ancient forms from which the spirit has departed."
Yirat Shamayim is the beginning of an inner liberation from the tyranny of human opinion and coercion. Imagining the sublimity and dignity of God, the pressures of conformity or social consensus pales to insignificance. For the Hebrew midwives, fear of God was a way of seeing Pharaoh for who he was –simply another human being, seeking to silence his own fear and fragility by bullying the weak. It was their awe and wonder at God's greatness that imbued these women with clarity about their own real greatness: the opportunity to shine God's light in a murky and hurting world.