One of the miracles of the 20th century was the Jewish people taking control of their ancestral land when they won the Independence War in 1948. Part of the miracle was that a large segment of the army was composed of Holocaust survivors; WWII had just ended three years earlier. When looking at pictures of the day the ’48 war ended, one sees singing and dancing in the streets and much elation of people who just a few years ago were in bondage and now were able to live freely in their own land. Now use your imagination to go back thousands of years to people who were enslaved for 210 years by the most powerful nation of the day and were finally granted their freedom in order to live freely in their own land-the same land that is in Jewish hands today. Whatever happened in 1948 would be dwarfed by the euphoria the people felt at that time. What would you expect from the nation’s leader? If he was not the center of the celebration, he might be working on a successful departure. What was Moses, the Jewish leader, doing the day they left Egypt?
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him…(13:19)
With all the euphoria of leaving, and while the rest of the Jews were busy amassing gold and silver to be taken out of Egypt, Moses involved himself with a promise made centuries earlier when Joseph had his brothers swear they would eventually take his bones out of Egypt (They couldn’t do it when he died because they were still slaves and Pharaoh would not let them leave.) Moses was neither a brother of Joseph nor a son, grandson or decedent, yet on that happy day when the Jews left Egypt, he was busy finding Joseph’s bones to give them a proper final burial in the Land of Israel. The Midrash takes note of Moses’ commitment and applies the following verse (Proverbs 10:8) to him:
The wise of heart will seize mitzvot (good deeds).
One might expect a religious text like the Midrash to say that a pious person will seize every opportunity to grab a mitzvah, but what does it have to do with wisdom? Throughout our lives we are involved in giving and taking; the purpose of much or our giving is to take. For example, a lawyer gives herself over to her clients but it is done for a fee, which is taking. Even noble non-profits have administrators who believe in the cause yet accept monetary compensation in return for giving of time. There’s nothing immoral about it, it’s simply a fact of life. The most devoted schoolteacher in a bad neighborhood who gives most of his time to his students will take a salary. Relationships work the same way. Unless one has an emotional disorder, (s)he expects to take something from a relationship. Love, protection, financial stability, caring, and companionship are just a few of things we hope to receive in a relationship. Of course people sometimes give time, money, and themselves altruistically but one can’t deny that a large part of our giving involves taking.
There are two areas of life where no matter how much one gives, (s)he ends ups taking more than (s)he was given-the parent-child relationship. Imagine the ideal child; (s)he cleans up after playing, doesn’t fight with a sibling (because (s)he knows how unsettling it is to his or her parents), (s)he does well in school, and shares with the other kids. Do these actions make up for nine months of a difficult pregnancy, sleepless nights and doctor visits, transportation to all clubs and extracurricular activities, and in general for having someone being the caretaker, manager, strategic planner, and implementer of everything in that child’s life? No amount of giving can compensate for all that taking-even in the best-case scenario.
The second and more important area in which we take more than we give is to G-d. If we think of how many painless breaths, we took the first week of our life and how food was made naturally available through the body of our mother, and how we instinctively knew how to eat without being taught, we would realize that there’s no way to repay G-d for all that kindness-for just the first week of our life. As you are reading this dvar Torah, your body is digesting food and directing the nutrients to their destinations and the waste to its place without any effort or cognizance on your part. Your eyes see, your brain thinks and allows you to process your thoughts with your brain’s data bank, which you never consciously set up or programmed. If you are drinking a coffee while reading this, your tongue with its millions of receptors instantly identifies your drink and the pleasure center of your brain is stimulated. There’s no way we can return all this kindness, but what does all of this have to do with seizing mitzvot?
The Almighty has created a world in which we are rewarded for each mitzvah we do. People have a misconception and think they are giving to G-d-they are being momentarily religious by paying a shiva call, giving charity, visiting the sick, going to a Torah class, volunteering in children’s cancer ward, purchasing bullet proof vests for Israeli soldiers or any other of the endless mitzvah opportunities we grab. Yes, you are giving when you do these things but the intelligent-i.e. wise hearted-person will realize that (s)he is really taking because we are rewarded for the mitzvot we chose to perform. Doing a mitzvah is not a way of repaying a debt to G-d; He has everything and therefore needs nothing from us. Mitzvot are simply a gift given to us that allow us gain more merit in this world and the next and that’s why there are so many mitzvah opportunities. As the Talmud states, Rabbi Chananya ben Akashiya says, “G-d wanted to confer merit upon the Jewish people, therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance.” (Makkos 23b)
While the rest of the Jews were thinking about how to maximize their exit from Egypt and to grab everything they could, Moses was busy grabbing a mitzvah opportunity. Even though taking out Joseph’s bones wasn’t his particular responsibility, one who looks for opportunities doesn’t think about obligations; he does whatever he can the same way that an entrepreneur looks for ways to make money and enter new markets, even though (s)he doesn’t have to and people in loving marriages look for opportunities to do things for their spouse for no reason other than being grateful. The beauty of Judaism is that even though one does a mitzvah for no reason other than thanking G-d for doing what He does, the person is rewarded for his or her commitment. We think we are doing it for G-d because He needs it but only humans need things. He needs nothing but wants to reward us and therefore has given us limitless mitzvah prospect to do so.
The beauty of this opportunity is that when we follow His instructions by doing mitzvot, in addition to the benefit we reap, the other outcome is that we turn our families, community, and indeed the world into a better place.
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