Torah Weekly

For the week ending 20 January 2007 / 1 Shevat 5767

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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G-d tells Moshe to inform the Jewish People that He is going to take them out of Egypt. However, the Jewish People do not listen. G-d commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and ask him to free the Jewish People. Although Aharon shows Pharaoh a sign by turning a staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians copy the sign, emboldening Pharaoh to refuse the request. G-d punishes the Egyptians and sends plagues of blood and frogs, but the magicians copy these miracles on a smaller scale, again encouraging Pharaoh to be obstinate. After the plague of lice, Pharaoh's magicians concede that only G-d could be performing these miracles. Only the Egyptians, and not the Jews in Goshen, suffer during the plagues. The onslaught continues with wild animals, pestilence, boils and fiery hail. However, despite Moshe's offers to end the plagues if Pharaoh will let the Jewish People leave, Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and refuses.


Take it to Your Heart

“Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock to the houses. And whoever did not take the word of G-d to heart – he left his servants in the field.” (9:20).

Translation is a risky business.

When you translate a concept into another language, you put it into a set of cultural assumptions that may well be inimical to the concept itself.

A case in point is the Hebrew concept of Yirat Hashem. Literally translated yirat Hashem means “fear of G-d”. Within the cultural framework of the English language, the adjective “G-d-fearing” conjures up visions of the Pilgrim Fathers, characters with names like Jebedyah and Obadyah; Amish picket fences and Shaker furniture. “G-d-fearing” is not an adjective that sits well in the mouth of the modern English-speaker. It is our culture’s assumption that we should be free from fear.

In the view of Judaism, however, Yirat Hashem, fearing G-d, is the beginning of wisdom.

But what does G-d-fearing mean? Does it mean having the haunted look of a severe paranoid, or that getting out of bed in the morning becomes an existential challenge?

This week’s parsha reveals the essence of Yirat Hashem.

In the seventh plague, the Torah describes the Egyptian reaction to the news that G-d would cause lethal hail to fall on the land. “Whoever among the servants of Pharoah feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock to the houses. And whoever did not take the word of G-d to heart – he left his servants in the field.” (9:20).

Ostensibly, the opposite of “feared the word of Hashem” in the first sentence should be “And whoever did not fear the word of G-d…” Why then is the opposite of fearing Hashem called “not taking the word of G-d to heart?”

The essence of Yirat Hashem is paying attention.

Try this experiment.

How many times a day do you glance at your wristwatch? Let’s say you look at the time twice an hour, maybe three times. Let’s assume that you get up at seven and go to bed at twelve midnight. So, on average, you look at your watch some 50 times a day - 50 times a day, seven days a week. Let’s say your watch is two years old. So you’ve looked at your watch approximately 35,000 times.

Now, without looking, can you tell me what’s written on the face of your watch? Chances are that you left something out, or got something wrong.

You can look at the same thing, day in, day out, but if you don’t pay attention, you’ll never really see it.

It’s the same with Yirat Hashem. You can know there’s a G-d, believe the Torah’s true, even do all the mitzvot, but never achieve an awareness of G-d.

You can think that being an angry person is a very bad thing, but unless you internalize this awareness until it becomes instinctive, you will carry on being Mr. Angry for the rest of your life.

Every day we say in the prayer, Aleinu, “… You should know this day and take to your heart that Hashem is the only G-d – in heaven above and on the earth below – there is none other.”

The essence of fearing G-d is not just “to know this day”, but also “to take it to your heart.”

  • Based on the Sfat Emet and other sources

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