Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad rebbe, had a disciple who was also a great philanthropist. Two causes that were particularly dear to him were supporting the Jewish community in the Land of Israel and ransoming captives.
This wealthy chassid had already married off his children and begun pledging dowries for his less-affluent relatives, when the wheel of fortune turned, and his finances suffered.
He was forced to borrow money, and at the end he was left penniless. Overwhelmed and pursued by creditors, he did what any chassid would do: he traveled to his rebbe and unburdened his heavy heart.
After listening intently to his complaints, Rabbi Schneur Zalman addressed him: “You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!”
In this week’s Torah portion, the first one of the book of Exodus, we read about the beginning of the harsh Egyptian exile. But with the disease comes the cure: in the same portion we read about the birth of Moses, the man who was to lead the Jewish people out of their bondage.
One of the first things we hear about Moses is that how he helps another person. Emerging from a sheltered existence as a member of Pharaoh’s household, he sees an Israelite slave being cruelly beaten by an Egyptian, and rescues him.
There are times in our lives when it may be challenging to think about anyone other than ourselves, but the message of Rabbi Schneur Zalman to the anonymous chassid rings true: You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!
Often, the best response to adversity is to break out of our comfort zones and extend a helping hand to another person with love and gratitude for all the good that we have.
I’ve recently lamented about the relative significance of our lives to God and His purposes, but I suppose the above-commentary, part of which I’ve read before, provides us with something of an answer. Still, it’s difficult when we have needs, to set those aside and to consider instead what we are needed for. When it is our heart that hurts and our eyes that grow dim, how can we view ourselves as the pilgrim instead of the exile? Yet we see that in God causing Moses to rise up among his Jewish brothers, that He created Moses to become both.
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.
–Exodus 2:11-15 (JPS Tanakh)
I can only imagine that after having grown up in Pharoah’s court, becoming a shepherd in Midian was something of a let down for Moses, at least at first. But in my imagination, I think of Moses finally marrying, raising sons, and eventually coming to terms and to a peace with the simple life, tending to his flock in the shadow of the mountain of God.
But then, God had other plans for Moses.
“You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!”
-Rabbi Schneur Zalman
But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.” The Lord became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth — I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do — and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him, And take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs.”
–Exodus 4:10-17 (JPS Tanakh)
Most of us have never been a prince in Egypt or even a wealthy philanthropist and chassid, but I’m sure many of you reading this have been poor (or are poor) and in need and have been focused more on your own desperation than the plight of the world around you. It’s only natural that when we are confronted with our own pain, we direct all our attention to it and ask for help. It is only natural that, when presented with a task or a mission that seems well beyond our capacities, we should try to turn it down or ask that it be assigned to someone else.
But sometimes God asks the most unlikely people to do the most unusual things.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
–Acts 9:19-22 (ESV)
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
–Micah 6:8 (ESV)
For kindness is Yours, O God, when You compensate each person according to his actions.
In our productivity-oriented society, we tend to place value on the product rather than on the process. Success is praised and failure is condemned, and we have little interest in the circumstances under which others function.
This attitude might be justified in the marketplace, since commerce lives by the bottom line. Still, our preoccupation with commerce should not influence us to think that people’s successes and failures should be the yardsticks for how we value them.
God does not judge according to outcome. God knows that people have control only over what they do, not over the results. Virtue or sin are determined not by what materializes, but by what we do and why.
Since the Torah calls on us to “walk in His ways,” to emulate God as best we can, we would do well to have a value system so that we judge people by their actions, not their results. This system should be applied to ourselves as well. We must try to do our utmost according to the best ethical and moral guidance we can obtain. When we do so, our behavior is commendable, regardless of the results of our actions.”
Today I shall…
try to be considerate of others and of myself as well, and realize that none of us is in control of the outcome of our actions, only of their nature.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 19”
You and I speak of our needs to God and He desires this. But He also desires that ask Him what we are needed for. The answer is the reason we are all alive today.