It is hard to imagine that the midwives would have done anything other than save the baby boys. Murder a newborn baby? Who would do such a thing, even under the orders of a powerful king? Such an act would haunt the soul of any normal person for the rest of her life. It is painful to consider how a person would overcome the quaking fear within that warns us against committing such a horror.
Indeed, the Torah tells us, in its own way, that Shifra and Puah did save the Israelite baby boys because of exactly this capacity to be horrified at the thought of committing murder. The Torah says that the midwives "feared God" (Exodus 1:21).
The "Fear of God" is not, as some imagine, the cowering fear of a divine being who will come to smite the wicked with lightening bolts. Rather, when Jewish tradition talks about "fearing God," it is talking about the innate human response to the thought of committing an immoral act. This is the kind of fear (yirah in Hebrew) that we feel in our gut that sets a boundary against doing what we know is wrong.
The Torah says that because of their fear of God, Shifra and Puah were rewarded by God who "established households for them" (ibid). According to some commentators, this reward should not be understood only on a literal level. Those "households" may also have been the figurative four walls, floor and ceiling that define our moral universe and make us feel secure in who we are.
In his collection, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, the late-eighteenth-century chasidic master, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov made this connection. He wrote that the fear of God can be called a "house" because it is the capacity within us that establishes our limits and boundaries. It creates a vessel into which we pour our lives.
This capacity to tremble at immorality is something that almost everyone discovers in childhood. We recognize the suffering to others that results from our bad choices, and we are repulsed instinctively by the idea of being the cause of such suffering. This is a quality that we share with other animals. Monkeys and apes also show a innate discomfort in causing harm to their fellows, even when it is to their own immediate benefit.
As we grow older, the ability to respond to the discomfort of causing harm to others is something that we can develop into a mature moral sensibility, or it is something that we can learn to ignore. It is up to us to choose.
People who choose, as Shifra and Puah did, to harness their actions according to that gut feeling, tend to feel more secure about themselves. They have a set of personal boundaries that help them to understand who they are and their own, personal expectations for themselves. Those boundaries help them to discover a sense of purpose and find happiness in life.
On the other hand, people who develop the habit of ignoring the feelings that tell them when they are stepping over the line, tend to feel ungrounded in life. WIthout a set of boundaries, life can seem purposeless and unrewarding. People who habitually act on their instincts to satisfy their desires without regard to the affect their actions have on others, over time, begin to feel that their unbounded desires can never be fully satisfied. They often grow unhappy with a world that never seems to give them what they want because they fail to recognize any limits on themselves or on their desires.
There is also an unhappiness that can result when people place too stringent limitations on the boundaries of their behavior. A person who convinces himself that everything he does is wrong is also likely to be unhappy, of course. We often think about people who are "wound too tight" when we imagine how people can make themselves unhappy, but we do not always recognize that having loose or missing boundaries can also lead to unhappiness.
God rewarded the Shifra and Puah's fear by establishing "households" for them. That may really mean that they found their own reward by living lives of moral order. By knowing themselves and setting boundaries for their actions, they found a sense of meaning and purpose in life. We can help ourselves to become more fulfilled by listening, as they did, to our own feelings. When we are aware of the trembling within that warns against harming others, we come closer to finding our own happiness.
Other posts on this topic:
Shelach Lecha: Getting Up Close and Personal