President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In a similar vein, developing fear of G-d, also known as yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven), can give a person confidence. The concept may sound startling, but it is actually quite practical.
First, let’s define fear. The word yira, often translated as fear, actually means awe. In short it means that one is imbued with a sense of the greatness, majesty, awe, and splendor that is the Creator of the Universe. This leads a person to obey Hashem, not transgress the 365 negative mitzvos (the ‘don’t do’s’), and to feel a spirit of reverence for the King of kings, Lord of lords.
But how does having fear of G-d help one gain self-confidence? Wouldn’t trepidation before G-d lead to constant anxiety? Fear of G-d does not mean we spend our lives trembling and worrying that G-d is going to ‘smite us.’ Hashem is not a vengeful, tyrannical, ego-maniacal dictator. When one realizes that one need only fear Hashem and nothing else, one is empowered to face life’s challenges and earthly oppressors with courage. Internalizing the knowledge that obeying Hashem’s will supersedes all other demands frees us of spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about what others think of us. Most importantly it empowers us to do the right thing even when doing so is difficult.
Years ago I learned an interesting insight from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. He pointed out that this week’s Parsha contains what is perhaps the first recorded episode of civil disobedience. In Parshas Shemos, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives (Shifra and Puah) to throw all first-born male Hebrew children into the Nile River. However, the Torah tells us that “the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live!” (Shemos 1:17). Pharaoh was at that time the most powerful person in the world. And yet the Torah informs us two brave Jewish women, Shifra and Puah, refused to obey his decree because they feared G-d more than Pharaoh.
Their fear of Hashem led them to put their own lives in jeopardy in order to do what was right. Awe of Hashem can lead us to do what is moral even in the face of grave danger. May we all develop a fear of Hashem that gives us the courage to do what is right with unwavering resolve and to face the Pharaohs of this world with the bravery that can only come with knowing that the power of the Most High is invested in us.