Parashat Yitro: The Container
After Beneh Yisrael encamped at Mount Sinai, G-d spoke to Moshe and had him convey to the people the terms of the covenant which they entered into at the time of Matan Torah. G-d told Moshe, "So shall you speak to the House of Yaakob, and say to the Children of Israel." Rashi comments that the term "House of Yaakob" refers to the women, and "Children of Israel" refers to the men. Meaning, G-d wanted Moshe to first present this information to the women, and only then to the men.
Why would that be? Why did G-d want Moshe to speak about the Torah first to the women and only then to the men?
The Gemara (Baba Batra 141) comments, "Bat Tehila Siman Yafeh Le’banim," which literally means that if a couple’s first child is a girl, this is an omen that boys will be born thereafter. However, the Shab Shemateta offered a deeper interpretation of this remark. Women in Jewish life generally serve a more private role, running the household and tending to the children, while the men traditionally spend more time out of the house. Symbolically, then, the woman represents Yirat Shamayim – the internal sense of fear of Hashem that we are all to experience at all times. Some people conduct themselves in a pious, upright manner in public, in the presence of their peers, in order to earn their approval and respect, but fail to live up to those same standards in private. There are people who are very generous with their time and money, and rush to assist those in need at any hour of the day or night, but are rude and insensitive to their wife and children. There are people who ensure to buy meat with the strictest standards of Kashrut, but buy on credit without any intention of ever paying their bill. People such as these outwardly appear pious, but lack Yirat Shamayim. A person who genuinely senses that Hashem is watching him or her at all times will act in a proper, dignified and upright manner both in public and private; in the synagogue, in the office, at home, and on vacation. The Gemara teaches us that this keen awareness of being watched by G-d is a prerequisite to Torah. Before anything else, we need to engender within ourselves the sense that we are being watched by the Almighty. "Bat Tehila" – before anything else comes the "Bat," the woman, the internal mindset of Yirat Shamayim. Once this mindset is in place, then one is eligible for "Banim" – to move to the next step and pursue greatness in Torah and Misvot.
Indeed, at the very beginning of the Shulhan Aruch, the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Cracow, 1525-1572) cites the verse in Tehillim (16:8), "Shiviti Hashm Le’negdi Tamid" – "I have placed G-d before me, at all times," and adds, "This is a great principle of the Torah." Right at the beginning of the most important Halachic code, we are told that before all else we need to "place G-d" before us, and be mindful of His presence and watchful eye at all times. Unless we truly believe and sense that G-d is always watching us, we cannot properly fulfill the dictates of Halacha. We might be able to impress our peers by appearing religious in public, but this means nothing if we are not consistent and flagrantly violate the Torah in private.
For this reason, G-d instructed Moshe to first speak to the women before addressing the men. Before we can speak of the traditional "male" role – Torah study, prayer in the synagogue, and communal service – we must first establish the "female" role – the private, personal experience of Yirat Shamayim. As Moshe prepared the people to receive the Torah, he was to impress upon them the importance of the indispensable prerequisite of Yirat Shamayim.
The famous Pasuk in Tehillim (111) teaches, "Reshit Hochma Yir’at Hashem" – fear of G-d must precede wisdom. A person who lacks Yirat Shamayim and amasses Torah knowledge is comparable to a set of Talmud loaded onto a donkey, or, to take a more modern example, a computer with the entire corpus of Torah literature stored on it. The knowledge may be impressive, but overall, the accomplishment is meaningless. Torah knowledge is significant only if it is preceded by Yirat Shamayim, by a genuine, keen sense of our accountability to G-d. Only once we have established this mindset can we then proceed to pursue Hochma – knowledge – and strive for spiritual excellence.
In preparing Beneh Yisrael for Matan Torah, Moshe was to tell them that if they accept G-d’s commands, "Vi’hyitem Li Segula Mi’kol Ha’amim," which Rashi explains to mean that they would be G-d’s "treasure." Rashi’s comment may be viewed as a reference to a Pasuk in the Book of Yeshayahu (33) where the prophet tells us, "Yirat Hashem Hi Osaro" – G-d’s "treasure" is Yirat Shamayim. A person can own many valuables, but they will not help him if he does not have a safe container in which to store them. Yirat Shamayim is the "treasure chest," the container we need in order to "store" all the positive qualities which we are expected to develop. Just as valuables left outside in the street are bound to be stolen or lost, our Torah knowledge and good deeds are meaningless if they are not "stored" in the "container" of Yirat Shamayim.
A man once mentioned to Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (1891-1986) before Purim that he was thinking of calling in sick on Purim morning so he could stay home from work. The man was allowed a certain number of sick days, and so he figured he could pretend to be sick on Purim, which would allow him to celebrate the holiday with his family and community. Rav Yaakov told the man in no uncertain terms that this was absolutely wrong. Rather than tell a lie, he should pack a deli sandwich and eat it during lunch break as his Se’udat Purim. The idea that one can lie for the sake of celebrating Purim reflects a deplorable lack of Yirat Shamayim. One cannot be "religious" by giving Mishloah Manot and hearing the Megilla, if at the same time he is dishonest with his boss.
Another story is told of a man who was needed as the tenth man for a Minyan, but if he stayed he would be late for an appointment. The Hazon Ish (Rav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878-1953) sternly told the man to go to his appointment. If one has Yirat Shamayim, he is just as adamant about keeping his word as he is about praying with a Minyan.
"Yirat Hashem Hi Osaro." Torah offers us many priceless treasures, but their value depends upon our Yirat Shamayim in which they are contained.