Compassion Comes From Fearing God

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This week's parsha exemplifies the concept that fearing God is intended to “prevent people from fearing human beings more than God.”

At the end of Ki Tetze there is a brief account about the attack the Amalekites made upon the Israelites who were marching through the wilderness. The Amalekites did not attack the vanguard, where there were strong warriors, but upon the rear of the column where the faint and weary were straggling. The Amalekites acted unconscionably because they were “undeterred by fear of God” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).
 
Yir’at elohim — “fearing God” — is a key phrase in the Torah. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in his book, Biblical Literacy, that fearing God is intended to “prevent people from fearing human beings more than God” and “promote ethical and compassionate treatment of the weakest members of society.”
 
One instance of fearing God is the exemplary action of the midwives Shifrah and Puah in Exodus. When Pharaoh ordered them to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth, they refused. Why did these midwives risk their lives by disobeying Pharaoh?
 
Because “the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). The midwives, more fearful of God than of Pharaoh, acted compassionately toward mothers and infants in a vulnerable situation.
 
During the Holocaust, gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews were more fearful of God than of the Nazis. They were truly yir’ei elohim, “God-fearing people,” just like Shifrah and Puah.
 
Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute relates the story of how his family was saved by God-fearing Righteous Gentiles.  When, in 1941, the Nazis ordered the Jews in Holland to report for “resettlement,” ministers and parishioners of Calvinist Protestant churches organized an underground movement.
 
A Dutch minister, nicknamed Fritz “de Zwerver” (Fritz the Wanderer), would bike from church to church to try to stir opposition to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.
 
One Sunday morning, Fritz arrived in the town where the Zion family had settled. He walked up to the lectern to speak. Despite the fact that pro-Nazi Dutch officials were sitting in the front row, Frit read aloud the story about Shifrah and Puah.
 
Zion remembers that Fritz said to the congregation, “ ‘Who is the Pharaoh today? The Nazis! Who are the babies who have to be hidden? The Jews! Who are the midwives today? We are! It is our job to outsmart the Pharaohs, to have the courage of the midwives and to protect the Jews and all those being persecuted.’ 
 
“Then he got on his bicycle and went to the next village. The people were inspired — many members of the church participated and hid the Jews in their houses.”
 
At Deuteronomy 25:19, we are commanded never to forget Amalek. History — in the form of Haman, Hadrian, Hitler and Hamas — has not let us forget. Three of those names are quite familiar; Hadrian’s, less so. After Hadrian’s Roman army crushed the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 135 C.E., he attempted to erase the memory of Judea by renaming the province Syria Palaestina, a name intended to add insult to injury. The Latin “Palaestina” is derived from Peleshet, the land of the Philistines, Goliath’s people.
 
Today, Israel’s proper name has been restored and the country's warriors protect its people from those “undeterred by fear of God.”
 
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the Chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected]
 

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