We read in Parashat Bo that after Moshe warned Pharaoh of the eighth plague, the plague of locusts, Pharaoh’s advisors succeeded in convincing the king to reconsider his obstinate refusal to allow Benei Yisrael to leave and sacrifice to God as Moshe demanded. Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon back to the palace and asked which members of the nation they wished to bring with them to the wilderness for this sacrifice. Moshe responded, “We will go with our young and with our old; with our sons and with our daughters; we will go with our sheep and with our cattle, for this is for us a festival to the Lord” (10:9). Upon hearing Moshe and Aharon’s insistence that the entire nation be given permission to leave, Pharaoh angrily expelled them from the palace, insisting that he would allow only the adult males to go to serve God.
Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelekh, suggests reading Moshe and Aharon’s response to Pharaoh’s question as establishing a general principle relevant to religious observance. Namely, our commitment to God applies at all different stages of life, and to all different areas of life. We serve God “with our young and with our old” – both in our youth, and in our older years. Our religious devotion lies at the heart of the work we do “with our sons and with our daughters” – in family life and the education of our children. And, we serve God even “with our sheep and with our cattle” – as we engage in our mundane pursuits. We must never compartmentalize our lives, allocating time for religious observance and then feeling free to conduct ourselves as we wish at all other times. Our service of God encompasses the totality of our life, and is directly relevant even to our “sheep” and “cattle” – our professional pursuits and the way we tend to our physical and material needs.
Rav Elimelech adds that we are able to live with this kind of all-encompassing devotion because “chag le-Hashem lanu” – “this is for us a festival to the Lord.” We are to relate to our service of God as a “chag,” as a source of joy and excitement. Avodat Hashem is to be our passion, our greatest love, which brings us happiness and fulfillment. When we make serving God our passion, then it will affect us and guide us at every station in life, and in everything we do.
Of course, the actual meaning of the verse is that all of Benei Yisrael, and all their property, must be included in the service of God which Moshe demanded that Pharaoh allow. Moshe was emphasizing that each and every member of Am Yisrael has an important place in our covenant with the Almighty and is bound by its terms and obligations, and that all our possessions are likewise to be used and channeled towards this objective. However, Rav Elimelech sought to remind us that just as our religious obligations include each and every individual, they also include each and every stage, setting and circumstance. They apply to young and old – and thus they are relevant both in youth and in adulthood, and they must guide our behavior throughout our lives and whatever we are involved in at any given moment.