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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos-Masei: Dying to fulfill a mitzvah
Moses was in control, he could have prolonged his life by holding back G'd's commandment. The longer Moses delayed the attack against Midian, the more mitzvot he could fulfill. The Vilna Gaon cried because the privilege to fulfill mitzvot is only in this world. This world is compared to an antechamber to the World to Come. The Jewish people were extremely reluctant to attack. Moses did not hesitate. No one has the right to fulfill a mitzvah on the account of another's suffering or inconvenience. Every act of Moses was for the sake of G'd and His Honour. Every Jew has the potential to be like Moses.
Moses did not hold back
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates that G'd instructed Moses, "Take revenge for the Children of Israel against the Midianites, after that you will be gathered with your people [i.e. you will pass away]." The Yalkut (Chapter 31) explains that G'd in effect told Moses that he would not die till he had taken revenge against Midian. In this way, G'd put Moses in control and he could have prolonged his life as long as he wanted. However, Moses felt that he had no right not to fulfill G'd's command and immediately instructed the Jews to arm themselves for battle.
Delay for more opportunities
If Moses' sole intention was to fulfill G'd's mitzvot (commandments) he could have reasoned differently. The longer he delayed the attack against Midian, the more mitzvot he could fulfill.
The importance of fulfilling every mitzvah is apparent from the following story that is told about the Vilna Gaon. When the Gaon was lying on his death bed, his disciples found him crying. They said to him, "You who have dedicated your whole life to study Torah and fulfill mitzvot, so what is the cause of your tears? You for sure have nothing to fear." The Gaon answered, "I am not crying out of fear of the world to come. Rather, I cry because I am about to leave such a beautiful world that I am in now." He showed them his tzitzis and said, "In this world, for a few coins one can buy a pair of tzitzis and fulfill other mitzvot. This privilege is only in this world. Once I am in the world to come, there is no such opportunity. That is why I am crying."
The significance of this world as a forum for performing mitzvah is further underscored by Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto in the first chapter of the Path of the Just. Rabbi Luzatto writes that G'd created man to enjoy himself, but the only place one can really enjoy oneself is in the World to Come. So why does G'd not put us straight in the World to Come? The answer is, we can only enjoy the World to Come, once we have gone through this world. As it says in Pirkei Avos (4:21): "This world is compared to an antechamber to the World to Come." We create our own World to Come by fulfilling the mitzvot, and the only place to do so, as the Vilna Gaon said, is in this world. Moses for sure understood this no less than the Vilna Gaon, so why did he not try to stay in this world as long as possible?
Reluctant to wage war
Even more. The Jewish people would have been more than happy had Moses chosen to prolong his life by delaying going to war against the Midianites. It says (Bamidbar 31:5): "And there were delivered from the thousands of Israel a thousand from each tribe … armed for the legion." The wording "there were delivered" implies that the Jewish soldiers were delivered against their own will. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma that the Jews were aware that Moses' demise was dependent on this war, and they were extremely reluctant to attack. So what was Moses' hurry?
Moses did not hesitate
Our sages teach that when a mitzvah comes our way we should not postpone it (see Rashi Shemos 12:17). A mitzvah is an opportunity. One never knows how long that opportunity will last. Whenever the opportunity arises it is a sign that this is the time to fulfill this mitzvah. When we are privileged to have a mitzvah turn up at our doorstep, we must realize that this is our opportunity to fulfill it at this very moment. Moses understood that if he delayed fulfilling G'd's command, circumstances may prevent him from fulfilling this mitzvah later. And although he knew his life depended on it, he did not hesitate to go ahead.
There is an additional reason why it would have been incorrect for Moses to delay the war against Midian in order to fulfill more mitzvot. Every day Moses would delay this war would prolong the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness. (The fact that the Jews were reluctant to engage in this war shows their selflessness and total dedication to their beloved leader.) No one has the right to seek to fulfill a mitzvah on the account of another's suffering or inconvenience. It sometimes happens that people in their eagerness to do a mitzvah forget how it affects others. For example, the Shulchan Aruch (Or Hachaim 101:2) quotes the Talmud (Berachot 24b) that one may not raise one's voice when saying the Shemona Esrei prayer in public as it may disturb others. Rabbi Avraham Pam, the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, New York, once spoke about how some husbands like to entertain visitors and invite friends or strangers without first making sure that their wives are up to having company. One must always remember that a mitzvah is to do what G'd wants of us rather than promoting oneself through one's mitzvah observance. As the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (5:16): "The one who wishes to give (charity) himself and that others should not give, has an evil eye on others" for he deprives them of the mitzvah. Obviously, this only applies when it is a mitzvah which is not obligatory or can be done in a different place or at a different time without causing inconvenience to others.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman mentions a third reason for the eagerness of Moses to enter into this war. He quotes our sages that point out the difference between G'd's command to Moses and Moses instructions to the Jewish people. G'd said (31:2) "Take revenge for the Children of Israel against the Midianites." On the other hand, Moses said (ibid 31:3): "Arm men from amongst yourselves for the legion and they shall be against Midian to take revenge for G'd against Midian." Rashi brings from the Midrash that whoever attacks the Jewish people is really waging a war against G'd. Our enemies first and foremost hate us because we are G'd's chosen nation. G'd told Moses to "take revenge" for the honour of the Jewish nation. But, says Rabbi Chasman, Moses looked at it totally different. He told the Jews to go into war to revenge the honour of G'd. Every act of Moses was for the sake of G'd and His Honour. In all his deeds, Moses only saw G'd; he himself was non-existent. When the Jews complained about the lack of food, Moses said to them, (Shemos 16:8) "What are we? Not against us are your complaints but against G'd." When G'd's Honour was at stake, it is self-understood that Moses would not make any other considerations.
Potential to be like Moses
The Rambam says that every Jew has the potential to be like Moses. The Rambam is obviously not referring to Moses' level of prophecy, but rather to his conduct in the fulfillment of mitzvot. This teaches us that we all have the ability to emulate Moses and fulfill the mitzvot with consideration of our fellow beings, and for the honour of G'd.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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