Million Dollar Mitzvah

In this week's parsha we read how, when Amalek attacked Israel, Moses ordered Joshua to lead the battle against Amalek, and he himself went to a hilltop with Aaron and Hur. The fortunes of battle shifted according as Moses' arms were raised or not. As long as his arms were raised, the children of Israel did well, but whenever his arms grew tired and fell, the tide of battle turned against them. This problem was solved by Aaron and Hur seating Moses on a stone and supporting his arms, one on each side.

This is an unusual description! Nowhere else does the Torah speak of Moses' physical limitations. On the contrary, we usually read how strong he was: he killed an Egyptian with a single blow, and chased away the shepherds who were giving Jethro's daughters a hard time. Rashi explains (on Exod.17:12) that the weariness of his arms was a punishment for his laziness, in getting someone else to lead the battle, while he stood on the sidelines.

This is strange, for according to the Ramban (quoting the Pirke de R' Eliezer) Moses was not just standing idly by! He was actually busy leading the children of Israel in prayer, and raising his arms was part of this activity.

And yet Rashi seems to believe that Moses had opted for the easy way out. It seems that Moses had a choice. He could choose between two mitzvot: either to lead the Israelites in battle, or to lead them in prayer, and (according to Rashi) he chose the easy option -- he made the wrong choice.

Let us compare this with another occasion. Earlier in the parsha we read (13:19) how Moses had carried the bones of Joseph with him in the Exodus from Egypt, as Joseph had wanted. The Midrash explains that Moses had actually disinterred these bones during the time that the Jews were taking gold, silver and jewels from the Egyptians prior to their departure. Here again, Moses had a choice of mitzvot to perform -- to dig up Joseph's bones, or to join in the taking of jewelry from the Egyptians. This time he chose the hard mitzvah! For by digging up the bones, he was depriving himself of the opportunity to enrich himself, as all his fellow Jews were doing. The Midrash tells us how valuable this Mitzvah was, for it was worth all the wealth he did not get!

We can compare this to the situation of a person who is sitting studying Torah, and a friend comes up to him and says: "Come quick! If you come immediately, you can make a million dollars in a business deal!" Suppose the person refuses to break his studying for the business deal, and so loses the opportunity to make the million dollars. Then the mitzvah he performed in studying Torah was a million-dollar mitzvah!

So on this occasion Moses chose the right mitzvah to perform.

I was once told by someone who could not make morning minyan: "By sleeping in, I was performing the mitzvah of "ushmartem et nafshotaychem" (guarding your health). Amazing that he had to perform this mitzvah precisely at 7:00 am!

Whenever we perform an apparently commendable task, we should be honest with ourselves, and ask ourselves whether our motive is perhaps to avoid doing some other less pleasant, but more important, mitzvah.