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Action and Laziness in Divine Service

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Adapted by Dov Karoll

Dedicated le-ilui nishmat Henri Sueke z”l
R’ Moshe ben Yaakov and Shoshana,
Whose shloshim falls on Friday July 3rd.
A much loved husband, father, son and brother,
May the family be comforted among the mourners of Yerushalayim
This shiur is dedicated Le-zekher Nishmat
Avraham Mordechai Belaciano ben Faride, z”l whose yahrzeit is Tamuz 14th


Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.  They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods.  Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 

The Lord said to Moshe, Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up before the Lord in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel. 

Moshe said to the judges of Israel, Slay you every one his men who were attached to Baal-Peor. 

And, behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of the people of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting.  (Bemidbar 25:1-6)

            It is understandable why Moshe and the elders were crying.  Before their eyes was harlotry, both in the literal sense and in the figurative sense - the unfaithfulness of idolatry.  The Torah explicitly connects idolatry and promiscuity in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 34:15-16).

            The severity of this episode is incomparable to the sin of the golden calf.  Of course, that too was very severe.  The Gemara (Gittin 36b) compares the sin of the golden calf, which took place at the feet of Mount Sinai, to a bride who was unfaithful under the bridal canopy.  But at least it was understandable, for the generation that left Egypt had grown up in the idolatrous Egyptian culture.

            This generation, forty years later, had grown up at the feet of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Thus, with all his frustration at the new generation's regression to idolatry and harlotry, it is understandable why Moshe Rabbeinu cried instead of responding. 

            Nevertheless, our sages speak very harshly of this weeping.  The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 20:24) asks,

Why were they crying?  Because they faltered, they became weak. 

To what is it comparable?  To a princess who was prepared to be led to the canopy [to get married] and she was found to have been unfaithful, at which point her father and relatives will falter [out of humiliation]. 

So, too, after forty years, Israel camped at the edge of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel… and they turned to promiscuity. [Therefore,] Moshe and the other righteous people became weak.  But Moshe had [previously] stood up against all 600,000, and here he went weak?

            The Midrash's response does not fully answer the question.  The Midrash explains that this weakness was "in order to allow Pinchas to rise to the occasion and take what he deserved."  This explains Pinchas's behavior, but it still does not explain Moshe's behavior.

            The Midrash ends off on a very harsh note:

Since he was nit'atzel, lazy (we will return to this word), [he was punished by the fact that] "No man knows the place of his burial" (Devarim 34:6)….  This shows that God is strict with the righteous even to a hair's breadth.

            We normally understand the fact that Moshe's burial place is not known as coming to prevent worship of such a place.  But the Midrash here takes it instead as a punishment.  As a punishment for what action?  The Midrash uses a harsh word, that we must not, Heaven forefend, take literally.  The word the Midrash uses is "nit'atzel," which literally would mean that he was lazy.

            This does not mean lazy in the sense that you and I are lazy.  It means that he did not take the initiative in this case, that he was unable to gird his loins, to rise to the occasion, as he should have done.  To a certain degree, this very high standard of conduct is expected specifically of Moshe Rabbeinu, as God is strict with the righteous even to a hair's breadth.

            The Gemara (Bava Kama 50a) cites two sources for this concept of the exacting standard applied to the righteous.  Rabbi Acha cites the verse (Tehillim 50:3), "And his surroundings are very tumultuous" [the word for tumultuous, nis'ara, puns with the word for hair], as teaching this principle. Rabbi Nechunya learns it from the verse, "God is greatly feared in the assembly of the holy ones, and held in reverence by all those who are around Him" (Tehillim 89:8).  This is also one interpretation of the verse in the Torah, "I shall be sanctified by those near to Me" (Vayikra 10:3, as per Rashi s.v. hu).

            Based on this principle, one can also understand the punishment Moshe and Aharon received for their misdeed at Mei Meriva (Bemidbar 20:2-13), especially in light of the verse in Parashat Ha'azinu.  The latter source comes at the end of his Moshe's life, when he is explaining why he and Aharon were unable to enter the land of Israel:

Because you trespassed against Me among the people of Israel at the waters of Meriva-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Tzin; because you sanctified Me not in the midst of the people of Israel. (Devarim 32:51)

            Moshe does not say that he is being punished for some particular negative action, but rather for the fact that he failed to sanctify God's name at Mei Meriva.  Moshe and Aharon had an opportunity for sanctification of God's name (kiddush Ha-Shem), and they did not maximize it.  They created a kiddush Ha-Shem of a smaller scale, which, by the standard applied to them, is considered a lack of kiddush Ha-Shem.  The same is true here: Moshe is punished for not stepping up in difficult circumstances to solve the problem.

            However, we will see in a line that we skipped earlier in the Midrash, that this is not entirely the case.  The Midrash, after explaining that Moshe was punished for not stepping up, continues as follows:

This teaches you that a person needs to be bold as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a hart and strong as a lion to do the will of His Creator.

            Of course, God judges each person in accordance with his or her abilities and capabilities; but each person, on their part, needs to try to maximize his or her potential.  The Midrash's description is based on the Mishna (Avot 5:20) where Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema says that a person needs to show these same character traits "to do the will of your Father in Heaven."  This Midrash adds that not only is one supposed to act this way, but that failing to do so is considered to be a wrongdoing.

            One might think that not taking advantage of religious opportunities is only a failure in the realm of "Do good" (Tehillim 34:15), that one has not advanced himself, has not acted out of righteousness, but one has not done anything wrong.  We see from here that such an approach is also a deficiency with regard to "Turn away from evil" (ibid.), and that one who fails to act is, in fact, considered to be acting wrongly.

            One could cite many examples for this relating to the study of Torah, but instead I will cite a few cases relating to the interpersonal realm.  One is the Gemara in Berakhot 12b, which teaches that one who could ask for mercy on behalf of his fellow, but fails to do so, is considered a sinner.  The Gemara does not say that he has not helped his friend, or that he has failed to take advantage of an opportunity; rather, it calls him a sinner.

            The Gemara in Yevamot 63b has very harsh words for one who does not engage in procreation.  R. Eliezer says, "Anyone who [intentionally] does not involve himself in procreation is considered as if he has spilt blood."  This is a comparison not only to a wrongdoing, but to a very specific and severe one.

            We need to strive in our service of God to maximize those opportunities that are presented to us, and not to be lazy and let them pass us by.  We need to strive for the best in all areas of the service of God, whether in the study of Torah, in prayer or in our interpersonal relations.  And we must recognize that failing to do so is not merely a lack of righteousness, but rather is a shortcoming in our service of God, one that we need to correct.  That which is possible for us to fulfill is binding upon us.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Balak, 5762 (2002).]