We read in Parashat Yitro that after Moshe ascended Mount Sinai and heard God’s instructions to the people in preparation for Matan Torah, “Moshe descended from the mountain to the nation” in order to prepare them (19:14). Rashi, commenting on the phrase “from the mountain to the people,” writes, based on the Mekhilta, “This teaches that Moshe did not turn to his own affairs, but rather [went directly] from the mountain to the nation.” The Mekhilta understood the verse to mean that Moshe proceeded immediately to the people after descending from the mountain, without first tending to his personal matters, demonstrating his unbridled devotion to the nation. This remark cited by Rashi is often viewed as highlighting the lofty standards of commitment that the Torah demands of leaders, who are called upon to sacrifice – at least to some extent – their personal needs and concerns for the sake of caring for the people under their charge.
Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in Sheim Mi-Shmuel (Parashat Teruma), adds a different – but no less meaningful – insight into the Mekhilta’s comment. He writes that when the Mekhilta speaks of “asakav” – Moshe’s “affairs,” this must refer to Moshe’s personal spiritual growth. Moshe held a unique spiritual stature whereby he involved himself in mundane, physical activities as minimally as a human being could, and thus, according to the Sheim Mi-Shmuel, the term “asakav” as applied to Moshe must necessarily refer to his spiritual engagement, his study, prayer and contemplation. If so, then Chazal here speak of Moshe’s sacrificing his own spiritual advancement for the sake of working with the people. He understood that his role as leader necessitated compromising his growth in order to help the people grow.
The Sheim Mi-Shmuel makes his comment in reference to his discussion of the command, “Kedoshim tiheyu” (“You shall be sacred” – Vayikra 19:2). The term “kadosh,” which is commonly translated as “sacred,” is also understood to mean “separate” and “withdraw.” The Sheim Mi-Shmuel thus explains that “kedoshim tiheyu” requires us to be prepared to retreat from that to which we are naturally drawn, for the sake of serving our Creator. For the vast majority of people, this means moderating our indulgence in physical pleasures, restraining our bodily instincts, enjoying worldly delights within the framework of God’s laws. But for Moshe, the Sheim Mi-Shmuel writes, this meant moderating his “indulgence” in spirituality when necessary to fulfill God’s commands. Moshe was naturally drawn to spiritual devotion, and he was required to occasionally abstain from spiritual engagement in order to work with the people, tend to their needs, and uplift them, as his job demanded.
The Sheim Mi-Shmuel here teaches that sometimes, we must restrain not only our base desires, but even our natural religious instincts. There are times when our ingrained sense of what is spiritually appropriate and important is not correct, when God’s will is counterintuitive even from a purely religious standpoint. The command of “kedoshim tiheyu” requires us to submit our wishes and our intuition to God’s will, to abstain from what we naturally feel inclined to do – even that which is inherently noble and lofty – when necessary for the sake of serving our Creator.