From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
And Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea.
Is it possible to be spiritual and selfish at the same time? Let us have a look at one word in this week’s parashah that sheds important light on this question. “Vayasa Moshe es Yisrael—And Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea.”
The great miracle happened. The sea had split and the Egyptian army was no more. The word “vayasa” means that Moshe had to move his people. But why was it necessary for Moshe to have to cause Israel to journey? Why wouldn’t they move on their own?
According to Rashi, the enemy was so confident of victory against the Israelites that they bedecked their horses and chariots with gold, silver, and precious jewels. These treasures were now being washed up on the seashore, and the Jews were collecting the riches. They were in no mood to move on, but Moshe said they had a date with G‑d at Mount Sinai. As the nation’s leader, he had to compel them to carry on their journey.
The Zohar gives a more spiritual explanation. We are taught that the Divine Revelation at the Splitting of the Sea was quite an extraordinary experience. What a simple maidservant saw at the sea, even the great prophets were not privileged to see. According to this mystical view, it was not the material wealth they were obsessed with, but rather the incredible spiritual delights they were experiencing.
Either way, it was up to Moshe to move them along to their date with destiny. And the question is this: If it was gold and silver that was delaying their journey to Sinai, we can well understand the need for Moshe to hurry them on. But if it was the spiritual experience of inspired revelation, why move at all? Why not stay there as long as possible? Surely, the more G‑dly revelation the better!
The answer is that G‑d Himself was calling. Sinai was beckoning. The whole purpose of the Exodus and all the miracles in Egypt and at the sea was nothing more than to receive the Torah at Sinai. That was the Revelation that would give the Jewish People its unique way of life and its very raison d’être. Sinai represents our mission, our mandate. Sinai made us G‑d’s messengers on earth. However we may understand the concept of a Chosen People, it was the Sinaitic experience that made us that. Any detours or distractions from the journey to Sinai are therefore out of the question—no matter how lofty or spiritual they might be.
It comes as no great shock to learn that money is not as important as Sinai. But that spirituality, too, must take second place to Sinai is indeed big news. And what exactly is Sinai? Torah. And what is Torah? G‑d’s will and how He wants us to live our lives. In other words, the bottom line is, what does G‑d want? How does He want us to act, to live our lives? So the big news story here is that even the most amazing spiritual experience, the most extraordinary revelation, is not as important as doing what G‑d wants us to do.
This is a very important message that emerges from this one word, “vayasa.” It’s not what we want that counts, but what G‑d wants. If we want money and diamonds and He wants to give us His Torah, then we leave the loot and we go to Sinai. And even if it is a spiritual experience we seek and G‑d says “Go to Sinai,” we still go to Sinai, and we leave the spiritual inspiration for another time.
It once happened back in the old country (a true story), that late one night, a wagon driver ran into a yeshiva and cried out to the students to come out and help him. It was urgent, he said. Apparently his carriage had overturned and his horse was stuck in a ditch and in danger of dying. He needed help to get the carriage upright. It was late at night, and there was no one else he could turn to, so he appealed to the yeshiva bachurim to come to his assistance.
At this point, the students’ Talmudic training kicked in and a long halachic debate ensued. Was it right to leave their Torah study for a horse? After all, is not Torah study equal to all the other mitzvos combined? On the other hand, the horse provided this Jew’s livelihood. Which takes precedence? The debate raged on and on, and when they finally did decide to go out and help the poor man, it was too late. The horse had died.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in our own spirituality that we become quite selfish. Spiritually selfish, of course, but selfish nonetheless. At the end of the day, it’s not whether we are into materialism or monotheism, money or metaphysics. The ultimate question—and, in fact, the only question—is “What does G‑d want of me at this moment in time?” Where should I be, and what should I be doing right now?
So if you find yourself in a quandary or on the horns of a dilemma and you desperately seek clarity, ask yourself this very question: What would G‑d want? Yes, sometimes it might be helping a horse out of a ditch. But if that is the call of the hour, then so be it. It might not be very spiritual, but it is the right thing to do. And if it’s the right thing to do, that makes it very G‑dly.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.