July 12, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 12, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

It already happened once, but yet again we read in this week’s parsha that Sarah is abducted by another king. In another ultimatum between giving up Sarah or potential death, Avraham has no choice but to say Sarah is his sister, and thus again, the king, Avimelech, takes Sarah but is informed by God in a dream that Sarah is really a married woman, and he is also stricken by God with a terrible plague to help him realize he has acted incorrectly. Avimelech then approaches Avraham and asks why he didn’t tell him that Sarah was really his wife, and Avraham responds “For I said, there is only no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (20:11). Avraham challenges Avimelech by pointing out the lack of yirat shamayim, which would have thus potentially resulted in Avraham’s demise if he didn’t lie about Sarah.

It seems like Avraham understood very clearly that if he didn’t lie about Sarah, his life would have very possibly been taken. When Avimelech asked him why he didn’t tell the truth, Avraham’s response was the above. We can therefore ask: What does not fearing God have to do with Avraham very possibly being killed by those who wanted Sarah? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate for Avraham to say that the people were corrupt and thus he might be killed if he didn’t lie about Sarah? Why the emphasis on a lack of yirat Hashem?

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Parshiyot, Bereishit, p. 48) notes a subtle nuance in Avraham’s response. Avraham said, “There is ‘only’ no fear of God,” implying that fear of God was the ‘only’ thing they were lacking. Indeed, says R’ Elchanan, these people were fully educated in wisdom, and possessed a highly developed sense of derech eretz—ethical behavior. However, they lacked ‘only’ one thing—yirat Hashem. Hence, they weren’t corrupt; they were ethical, they were “moral,” and certainly smart, but because they lacked yirat Hashem none of it would be of avail. Thus, based on R’ Elchanan it seems like this lack of fear of God could have very possibly led to Avraham being killed. Why? Because of a desire for his wife Sarah.

An eye-opening novelty from R’ Wasserman indeed, but it’s nothing we don’t know of. Unfortunately, the Holocaust is an extreme example of this—a society of people who were educated, ethical and proper people, but in one moment able to do horrors. Nowadays we see affiliations, among whom preach compassion and ethics, but at the same time are involved in treacherous misdeeds. R’ Elchanan teaches us that when a person has an inappropriate desire or aspiration, even if he has stellar middot, derech eretz, and a great deal of knowledge, it won’t necessarily help him be in control, and can even cause drastic conclusions.

When the Jews were in Mitzrayim and Pharaoh commanded the midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all the newborn Jewish males, the pasuk says, “The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live” (Shemot 1:17). Here too, we would have thought that they wouldn’t kill the babies because they were compassionate, kind, moral, etc. But from the language of the pasuk we see that it boils down to one thing that will make all the difference: yirat Hashem; and a lack of it—even if one possesses all the aforementioned qualities—would potentially not deter one from even murder.

For us, though, there’s perhaps a more practical approach to this phenomenon. Rashi (20:12) brings that when Avraham responded that there is no fear of God, Avraham was indicating to Avimelech the following rhetorical question: “A guest who comes to a city, do we ask him about eating and drinking, or do we ask him about his wife—‘Is she your wife or is she your sister?’” Essentially, Avraham was revealing that Avimelech lacked in derech eretz: When a new person is in town, asking about his basic needs comes first. Indeed, the Alter of Slabodka, R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel (Ohr Hatzafun, p. 176,177), points out from here that Avimelech was lacking in basic etiquette and derech eretz. Originally I thought perhaps this Rashi poses a difficulty on R’ Elchanan who explained above that there was no lack of derech eretz at all, but just a lack of yirat shamayim. However, based on what we are saying, perhaps it’s essentially one and the same. Even though he had derech eretz as R’ Elchanan says, since he lacked yirat shamayim, one’s inappropriate desires and ulterior motives can thus cause him to transgress even basic derech eretz, and thus cause a lack in such fundamentals. One may have very fine middot and derech eretz, but yirat shamayim is the compass to channel and implement the right behavior at the right time, and overcome impulses that can otherwise hinder our ability to be a truly good person. In fact, the Vilna Gaon (Sefer D’tzniuta, 51a) writes that if a person truly knew that Hashem’s “eyes” go alongside him and see [all that he does, thinks and feels], he would not do anything wrong. One fully aware of Hashem’s presence doesn’t just act from habit or impulse, he first determines whether Hashem would approve of such a behavior or not.

Yirat Hashem is far from just the icing on the cake. Kohelet (12:13) writes that after everything is said and done, the bottom line is that one fear/be aware of Hashem for this is “all of man.” R’ Elchanan explains that literally, yirat Hashem is all of man—it is the element that creates the defining factor whether one is a person or not; it humanizes us, and although in its absence we may be like any other creatures, with it we can become outstanding people.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles