Sunday, July 08, 2007

Parshat Mattos (Rabbi Sedley)

Saving Life

The portion of Mattos begins: G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, "Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people." (Numbers 41; 1, 2). Rashi (quoting a Midrash) praises Moshe for carrying out G-d's command immediately, even though G-d said that his own death would follow directly.
Halacha commands us to do anything necessary to save our own life, or the life of another, with the exception of the three cardinal sins; idolatry, murder and forbidden sexual relations. For example, we must break the laws of Shabbat even if we cannot save a life, but can prolong it for a short while. The source for this is the verse (Leviticus 18; 5) "You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live" (Sanhedrin 74a, Mishna Brura 328; 4). Commandments are to be the source of life, not the cause of death. Clearly the sanctity of human life takes precedence over keeping the commandments. Given this traditional Jewish view of the sanctity of life, how could Moshe hurry to perform G-d's command, which ultimately hastened his own death?
Moshe himself valued life, as we see from his pleading with G-d to prolong his life so that he may enter the Land of Israel, as recorded at the beginning of Va'eschanan. Moshe tells how he offered prayers to G-d, and only ceased his pleading when G-d commanded him to desist because of the risk of Chilul Hashem. Why then was Moshe so eager to fulfil G-d's command regarding the Midianites, when he could have prolonged his life by delaying?
According to Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Messilas Yesharim chap. 1) the main task of a person is to clarify and understand what are their obligations in the world. He continues: "Our Rabbis have taught us that a person was only created in order to draw close to G-d and enjoy the splendour of the radiance of the Shechina, which is the only true enjoyment and the ultimate pleasure. The place of this pleasure is the world to come, which was created for this purpose. However, the way to reach this goal is through this world. This is what our Sages meant when they said (Avos 4): This world is like a hallway before the world to come. The means through which a person reaches this goal is through the Mitzvot."
Moshe was in the unique situation of knowing exactly what was expected of him, and what his obligations in the world were. This is why he is described in the Torah as a "Servant of G-d" (Deuteronomy 34; 8). He also understood that this world is only a temporary hallway to prepare us for the world to come. Therefore, when G-d commanded him to wage war on the Midianites he didn't hesitate. Had he not fulfilled the command, he may have succeeded in prolonging his life in this world, but he would have missed the entire purpose of life, which is to perform the Mitzvot.
However, when G-d told Moshe that he was not permitted to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe tried everything he could to revoke that decree. His intention was not merely to prolong his life, but to give himself the opportunity to observe those commandments that can only be kept in the Land of Israel. The value of life is as a tool to performing Mitzvot.
The Vilna Gaon expressed this idea as he lay on his deathbed. He grasped his tzitzit in his hand and said: "How difficult it is to leave this world. In this world for a few kopecks a person can purchase tzitzit, and as a reward for that simple Mitzvah merit to experience the Divine Presence in the world to come. But in the Upper World, he can no longer earn anything, even if he exerts all his energies."

No comments: