Monday, January 21, 2008

What was Moshe's sin? Enthusiasm for Mitzvos

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah says (Nedarim 31b) : Great is circumcision, concerning which even Moshe the righteous was not spared for an hour.

The Ran comments: As soon as Moshe was lax, the angel wanted to kill him.

The Maharsha asks: Just because Moshe negated the mitzvah of circumcising his son on the eight day, is that a justification for him to be liable for death?

He answers: It is either because Hashem judges the righteous strictly or it is because a “ben Noach” is liable for death when he commits any type of transgression, and since it was prior to the Giving of the Torah, Moshe was being judged as a “ben Noach.”

Reb Meir Bergman asks: According to this explanation, how could the Mishna bring a proof from here that circumcision is great; perhaps it is different because of the special circumstances?

The Gemora states further: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah said: Great is circumcision, for all the meritorious deeds performed by Moshe our teacher did not protect him when he tarried in fulfilling the commandment of circumcision (regarding his son Eliezer), as it is written [Shmos 4:24]: And Hashem met him, and sought to kill him. Rabbi Yosi said: Heaven forbid that Moshe delayed circumcising his son, but rather, this is what Moshe said, “If I circumcise my son and immediately leave Midian to return to Pharaoh, I will endanger his life. I cannot circumcise him and wait three days, for the Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded me to go and return to Egypt! Why then was Moshe punished? It was because he occupied himself with arranging a place of lodging first prior to circumcising his son.

The Mefaresh explains: Since he was close to Egypt, he should have performed the circumcision when he stopped for lodging, for the small journey that remained would not have posed a danger to the child. He concludes that the child was only eight days old on that day.

Accordingly, the question is strengthened: Why would Moshe deserve such a strict punishment if he anyway performed the circumcision on the eight day? He was only guilty of not fulfilling the concept of zerizin makdimin l’mitzvos – a mitzvah should be fulfilled at the first moment possible. Why should he deserve to die?

Perhaps we may suggest the following answer (Rabbi Bergman answers in a very similar manner): The primary purpose of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life was to take the Jews out of Egypt and to give them the Torah. It is written regarding the birth of Moshe [Shmos 2:2]: The woman conceived and bore a son, and [when] she saw him that he was good, she hid him for three months. The Gemora in Sotah (12a) states that when he was born, the entire house was filled with light. This can be in reference to the light of Torah.

The Gemora in Megillah (16b) expounds on the verse that states [Esther 8:16]: Layehudim haysa orah visimcha visasson vikar. The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor. Light is referring to Torah; Gladness is referring to the festivals; Joy is referring to circumcision; Glory is referring to tefillin.

The question is asked: If the Megillah wished to say that the Jews were saved because they fulfilled the Torah, festivals, milah and tefillin, why didn’t the Megillah write that explicitly? Why was it mentioned only in code form?

Rabbi Eliezer Ginzburg in his sefer, The King’s Treasures states the following: It is well known that evil decrees instituted against the Jewish people are always in correspondence with their sins. Each transgression draws a particular type of negative force in its wake. Hence, in order to determine what sin the Jewish people are being held accountable for at any given time, one need only consider the dominant characteristic of the nation threatening them, for their enemies are nothing more than a reflection of their transgressions.

Amalek was able to strike the Jewish people when their enthusiasm for Torah observance waned. The Mechilta says in reference to the verse [Shmos 17:8]: Amalek came and battled Israel in Rephidim. Amalek came because Israel loosened their grip on the Torah. This is why Rabbi Elozar introduced his lecture on the scriptural portion of the Book of Esther with the following verse: Through laziness the ceiling collapses, and through idleness of the hands the house leaks – because of the laziness of the Jews, who did not engage in Torah study, the enemies were capable of attacking.

Perhaps, Rabbi Ginzburg continues, this is what the Megillah is teaching us by saying that “the Jews had light,” and not simply saying that “the Jews had Torah.” The Jews were not guilty of completely neglecting Torah study, or for that matter, any other mitzvah. Their shortcoming was their lack of enthusiasm for mitzvos. It was the inner light of the mitzvah which they lacked, the spark of excitement and fervor for doing Hashem’s will. The miracles which Hashem performed for Israel stoked the smoldering embers within each Jew and evoked a new fervor for the performance of mitzvos, reawakening the “light” of Torah study, the “gladness” of the Yom Tov holidays, the “joy” of circumcision and the “glory” of tefillin.

Using this principle, perhaps we can suggest why the angel wished to kill Moshe for procrastinating in the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It was not that he was deserving to die for this relatively minor transgression. Rather, when Moshe displayed a slight lack of enthusiasm for the mitzvos, he could not be the one to deliver the Torah to the Jewish people, and this was the purpose of his life. Thereupon, Tziporah immediately went and took a sharp stone and performed the circumcision of her son. Rabbi Bergman concludes that Moshe repented for this and merited to accept the Torah from Hashem and to deliver it to the Jewish people.


Unknown said...

WOW! Very powerful! Can we use this explanation to understand "HKB"H medakdeik im tzadikim k'chut hasaarah"? Such as with ma'asei miriva: the problem wasn't the hitting, but that it had potential to be Mikadesh Shem Shomayim, and wasn't.

Avromi said...

Your explanation there is the standard one and certainly correct; here we are adding that the lack of enthusiasm can be regarded as a blemish in respect of being the moser haTorah.