By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
This week, we read in Parshat Va’era about the first seven makkot (plagues) that God sent to Mitzrayim (Egypt), with 3 more to come in next week’s Torah portion, Bo. On the most basic level, these plagues seem to be sent as a lesson for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Many p’sukim (verses) highlight that the makkot were supposed to educate Pharaoh and the Egyptians about God. For example, the first plague is delineated in Ex. 7:17: “God says: ‘Here’s how you will know that I am God.’ I shall use my rod to strike the water in the Nile, and the water will turn to blood.”
The Eitz Chayim Chumash comments on this pasuk: “It is only by experiencing God’s might that Pharaoh will be persuaded to let Israel go.”
By the time that we reach the 10th makka in next week’s parasha, the death of the firstborn Egyptian males, Pharaoh gives in and lets B’nai Israel leave. The lesson of the plagues is clear and God’s true might is visible to Pharaoh, as the final plague affected him more personally than any other plague.
Perhaps in that moment, Pharaoh recognized God’s true power.
We have a phrase in our liturgical tradition, Yirat Shamayim, literally, the fear of heaven. Yira comes from the Hebrew root, Yud-Resh-Alef, that can mean both awe and fear.
We can speculate that Pharaoh may have finally felt that fearful emotion of Yirat Shamayim in the moment of that final plague.
We recall this Yira emotion liturgically every month on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat Mevarkhim, where we announce the new month beginning that next week. This is one of those weeks, when on Shabbat morning during our Torah service, we will announce the new month of Shevat which will begin this coming Monday.
Within this blessing, we recite this phrase twice within Birkat haChodesh, the blessing of the new month: “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, grant that this coming month bring us goodness and blessing, and bestow on us a long life, a life that is peaceful, a life … conscious of heaven’s demands and wary of sin…a life of love of Torah, conscious of heaven’s demands….”
The poetic translation of Yirat Shamayim in our Siddur Lev Shalem, ‘conscious of heaven’s demands,’ reminds us of the divine awe we should experience, not only with the passing of each month, but on a daily basis. In our siddur’s commentary on this monthly blessing, we understand that Yirat Shamayim “implies a consciousness of God’s presence in one’s life, so that one does that which is right in the eyes of God.”
While the plagues begin with Pharaoh’s stubbornness to let the Israelites go in this week’s parasha, they conclude next week with Pharaoh’s Yirat Shamayim, fear of God with the final of the ten plagues.
May we each strive to strike the right balance between the dual emotions of both awe and fear of God, Yirat Shamayim, reminding us to recognize God’s might and presence in our lives, inspiring us to find blessing within our lives each day of every month.