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The Question of Motivation

Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Question of Motivation

Summarized by Zev Jacobson


Moshe is confronted with demands from Benei Yisrael twice in this week's parasha. His contrasting reactions to each case teach us an important lesson in leadership.

First, we read of those who were ritually impure and therefore disqualified from offering the Korban Pesach (paschal sacrifice). They come to Moshe with a seemingly baseless complaint: "Why should we lose out and not be able to present God's offering at the right time, along with the other Israelites?" (8:7).

Moshe, far from losing his patience at a request that cannot be granted due to the halakhic problems involved, replies: "Wait here, I will hear what orders God gives regarding your case" (8:8). He could simply have absolved himself by stating the formal halakha - "This is the law, and that's all there is to it." But not only does he take an interest in their plight, he is confident that a solution will be forthcoming.

This, however, is not the case when Benei Yisrael demand to be supplied with meat, as they are sick of eating the manna. Moshe grows angry with them and says to God: "Why are you treating me so badly?... Why do you place such a burden on me?... Where can I get enough meat to give all these people?... I cannot be responsible for this entire nation! It is too hard for me!" (11:11-13).

Clearly, the disparity between Moshe's understanding, empathetic attitude in the first case and his unbending, furious attitude in the second stems from the motivations behind the two requests. The Jews who approached Moshe concerning the Korban Pesach did so out of a fierce desire to come closer to God. They felt a spiritual, existential void that could be filled only by offering the sacrifice; therefore, they turned to their spiritual guide and leader to assist them in their predicament. Such a need would undoubtedly be addressed by God, and Moshe therefore awaited a speedy solution to the problem.

The demand for meat, however, resulted from the desire to throw off the yoke of Heaven, to return to the spiritual state of Egypt where there were no commandments to be kept. Benei Yisrael were seeking a pretext to rebel against God, and this led to the tragic ending of this story when a great multitude were killed as a result of this unacceptable behavior.

When dealing with a community, it is important to be sensitive to the motivation that lies behind people's questions and attitudes, and to respond appropriately.

One of the most serious issues facing Judaism today is the role of women in religion. The call for active participation of women in minyanim, for example, often springs from a spiritual yearning to come closer to God. It can be extremely difficult to experience the intensity of prayer while only passively participating in the service, and a feeling of frustration often results.

The answer offered to these problems cannot be a close-ended, "This is what the Halakha states and there is therefore no room for discussion." One cannot ignore the spiritual needs of others and, although the Halakha must be strictly adhered to, there must be an identification with and an understanding of those affected. Even if we cannot, like Moshe, turn directly to God for a solution, we must listen attentively and empathetically.

Similarly, Moshe does not turn away the daughters of Tzelofchad away they ask to receive a portion in the Land of Israel. He listens to their request and agrees to ask God for a judgment. This story is all the more significant when viewed against the mood of Benei Yisrael at the time. Most of the people were clamoring to return to Egypt; they wanted nothing to do with the Promised Land. The daughters of Tzelofchad were lone voices, motivated by a love for Eretz Yisrael and a recognition of the necessity of having a connection with the Land.

This connection is an essential part in the make-up of every Jew, even today, and therefore God's resounding "They have a just claim" (27:7) is not at all surprising.

One whose intention is to draw closer to God will ultimately merit a divine response.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Beha'alotekha 5755 [1995].)


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