Parashat Shemot tells of the Israelite midwives’ bold defiance of Pharaoh’s command that they kill all newborn males among Benei Yisrael. We then read, “It happened that when the midwives feared God [and refused to obey Pharaoh’s order], He made homes for them” (1:21). Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-katzar) explains this to mean that they were blessed with large families, whereas Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sota 11b), writes that they were rewarded with the privilege of having the kohanim and Leviyim descend from them.
An entirely different approach to this verse is taken by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who explains the phrase “va-ya’as lahem batim” (“He made for them homes”) as referring not specifically to the midwives, but to all Benei Yisrael. The verse is emphasizing that as a result of the midwives’ fear of God, which surpassed their fear of Pharaoh and thus led them to defy his edict, the nation built many large families and its population rapidly grew. The nation’s growth is thus credited to the midwives’ heroism.
A creative insight into this phrase is suggested by Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, in his Mei Ha-shilo’ach. He writes that the fundamental difference between the fear of a human being and the fear of the Almighty is that the former causes anxiety, whereas the latter leads to serenity and peace of mind. This concept, the Izhbitzer Rebbe writes, is alluded to in the Torah’s description of the midwives’ reward. Since they feared God and not Pharaoh, they were given “batim” (“homes”), which the Rebbe explains as an allusion to the experience of comfort and serenity which a home is meant to provide. While we might have assumed that the midwives lived in constant fear and dread of Pharaoh, in truth, they enjoyed “homes” – a sense of security and peace of mind.
This passage in Mei Ha-shilo’ach teaches that contrary to what we might intuitively think, living with religious consciousness can, and should, be more joyful and serene than life without it. Without faith, we live in fear of the whims and flaws of other people. But when we “fear” God, submitting to His absolute authority and recognizing our absolute dependence on His governance, we live with the comfort of knowing that we are His faithful servants who are under His care.