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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos: Dying to fulfill a mitzvah
Moses was in control and could have prolonged his life by holding back G'd's commandment. By delaying the attack against Midian, Moses would have had many more opportunities to fulfill G'd's commandments. 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 Jews were extremely reluctant to wage war because Moses' demise was dependent on it. Although he knew his life depended on it, Moses did not hesitate to fulfill the mitzvah. No one has the right to seek the fulfillment of a mitzvah on the account of another's suffering or inconvenience. Moses, the most modest and humble of all people; every act of his 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 Torah portion, G'd commands Moses and says, "Take revenge for the Children of Israel against the Midianites, after that you will be gathered with your people [you will pass away]." The Yalkut (Chapter 31) explains that G'd in effect told him that he will not die till he has taken his revenge against the enemies of the Jewish people. So in fact, Moses was in control and could have prolonged his life twenty or thirty years. However, Moses reasoned and said, "We have no right to hold back from fulfilling a mitzvah" and immediately instructed the Jews to arm themselves for battle.
Delay for more opportunities
If Moses' sole intention was to fulfill the commandments of G'd he could have reasoned differently. If he would have stayed alive longer by delaying the attack against Midian, he would have been able to fulfill many additional commandments, and he would always have had the possibility of attacking Midian later. In that sense, by delaying the attack, he would have had many more opportunities to fulfill G'd's commandments.
The story is told about the Vilna Gaon. When his disciples found him crying at his death bed, they asked, "You who have dedicated your whole life to studying the Torah and fulfilling the mitzvot, what is the cause of your tears? You do not have anything to fear." The Gaon answered, "My tears are not due to fear of the world to come. Rather, that I have to leave such a beautiful world that I am in now." He showed them his tzitzis and said, "In this world, one can for a few coins 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."
Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto writes in the first chapter of the Path of the Just that the purpose of man's existence is to have enjoyment and that real enjoyment can only be achieved in the world to come. However, the only way to reach that enjoyment is to go through this world. As it says in Pirkei Avos (4:21): "This world is compared to an antechamber to the world to come." The means through which we create our world to come are the mitzvot and the only forum for the fulfillment of the mitzvot is in this world. Moses 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, we find that the Jewish people would have been more than happy had Moses chosen to prolong his life by delaying the warfare against the Midianites. 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 wage war because of that. As it says (Bamidbar 31:5): "And there were delivered from the thousands of Israel a thousand from each tribe … armed for the legion." This unusual expression "there were delivered" implies that the Jewish soldiers had to be forced to go into war. They were delivered against their own will. 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 exist. Whenever the opportunity arises it is a sign that this is the time for fulfilling this mitzvah. Whoever is privileged to have the mitzvah turn up at their doorstep should be aware that this is their opportunity to fulfill it at that very moment. Moses was aware 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 and fulfill this mitzvah.
There is an additional reason why it would have been incorrect for Moses to delay the war against Midian for the purpose of his ability to fulfill more mitzvot. Every day that Moses would delay this war would mean prolonging the wandering of the Jews in the desert. (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 the fulfillment of 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 so as not to disturb others. Rabbi Avraham Pam, the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodous, New York, once gave another example in one of his weekly talks. He spoke about how husbands sometimes 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" since he deprives them of the mitzvah. Obviously, this consideration 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. Our sages 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 instructed the Jews (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 quotes the Midrash that whoever goes into war against the Jewish people really is going into war against G'd. The enemies of the Jewish people first and foremost hate us because we are the nation chosen by G'd. G'd told the Jews to "take revenge" for the honour of the Jewish nation; therefore He called it the "revenge of the Jews". Says Rabbi Chasman, Moses however looked at it totally different. He told the Jews to go into war to revenge the honour of G'd. Moses, the most modest and humble of all people (see Bamidbar 12:3); every act of his was for the sake of G'd and His Honour. In all his deeds, Moses only saw G'd; he himself was non-existent. As when the Jews complained about the lack of food, Moses said to them, (Shemos 16:8) "As G'd hears what you are complaining against Him, so what are we? Not against us are your complaints but against G'd." When G'd's Honour is at stake, it is self-understood that Moses would make no other considerations to fulfill any other mitzvah.
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 the mitzvot. Every Jew has the ability to emulate Moses and fulfill the commandment of G'd in modesty and humbleness with considerations of one's fellow human beings, and last but not least for the honour of G'd.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network