By Rabbi Mordechai Young
As children, we all learned about the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere. He announced, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” He left Boston to ride towards Lexington to inform the people there that the British were planning to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
I learned later that Paul Revere was not in fact the only rider, but that there were three riders. Paul received all the credit even though he was ultimately arrested and never finished the trip. William Dawes actually eluded arrest and finished the trip. Why did Revere get all the credit and we never learned about Dawes? Paul Revere was a more prominent person in politics and business. More importantly, Revere wrote detailed first-person accounts of his mission, while there is little written about Dawes (as seen on History.com in an article by Christopher Klein).
In this week’s parashah, Rashi (8:1) quotes the Midrash that if you start a mitzvah, complete it. It’s not called the mitzvah unless it’s completed. The proof is from the pasuk (Yehoshua 24:34) that states, “And the bones (coffin) of Yosef that Bnei Yisrael lifted from Egypt they buried in Shechem.” The Midrash asks: didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu himself take the coffin out of Mitzrayim? In Parashat Beshalach it states that he did. So why does it state in Sefer Yehoshua that Bnei Yisrael took it from Mitzrayim? Since Moshe Rabbeinu did not complete the mitzvah and bury Yosef HaTzaddik himself, but Bnei Yisrael did, the mitzvah is ascribed to them.
The Gemara Sotah 13b teaches how beloved the mitzvot were to Moshe Rabbeinu. When it was time to prepare to leave Mitzrayim, everyone was involved in gathering silver and gold. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, did not gather silver and gold. What did he do? He was involved in mitzvot. He went to retrieve Yosef’s coffin from the Nile. The Gemara quotes the pasuk in Mishlei, “The wise of the heart take mitzvot.” This refers to Moshe Rabbeinu.
It’s very interesting that in Parashat Beshalach Moshe Rabbeinu is praised for doing the mitzvah of taking the coffin from Mitzrayim and in this parashah we learn from Rashi that Bnei Yisrael received the credit. The sefer Toras Kenuos states that if Moshe Rabbeinu would not have taken the coffin, Bnei Yisrael would have. The Gemara explains that they understood that it was more honorable to Yosef for Moshe to take his coffin. The Gemara in Kiddushin teaches that if one tries to do a mitzvah and circumstances beyond his control stop him, it’s considered as if he did it. That is why the pasuk states that Bnei Yisrael took the coffin out of Mitzrayim.
When we think about it, Moshe did not complete the mitzvah because of circumstances beyond his control as well; he passed away and did not enter Eretz Yisrael. So why doesn’t Moshe receive credit for the mitzvah if it was beyond his control to complete it? I asked Reb Shmuel Schwartz this question. He answered that since Moshe was punished for a “sin” and that’s why he did not go to Eretz Yisrael, he does not receive credit for completing it; it’s not the typical beyond-his-control circumstance. I was very happy to find this question and answer in the Sefer Toras Kenuos.
It’s amazing! Moshe knew that he would not have the mitzvah of burying Yosef connected with his name; he did not complain. He was happy and honored to do whatever he could in serving Hashem. We can all learn to push aside the desire to receive credit, and do the right thing to honor Hashem.
Rabbi Mordechai Young lives in the Five Towns with his wife and children. He teaches Torah and is available as a tutor/remedial rebbe. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.