Matot: Winning and losing at once

Matot: Winning and losing at once

At the end of Parashat Matot (Numbers 31:2), God commands Moses to avenge the Midianites for their having tried to destroy the Jewish nation. God adds that after Moses does this he will die. The midrash notes that Moses could have prolonged his life by putting off this mission, which he was not told had to be done immediately. He was, however, told that his death was contingent on completing this task. Nevertheless he acted with alacrity. Doing this mitzvah was a sacrifice on Moses’ part and reveals his selflessness as a person and as a leader.

On the other hand, Moses had his own reason to want to complete this task as soon as possible. Midian was involved in a rare situation, which almost brought down the Jewish people, and in which Moses did not take control and did not know what to do. He was given a chance to rectify his mistake and this is something he very much wished to do, even if it was literally the last thing he did before he died.

This is a stark example of how in life everything is a trade off and we win and lose at the same time. This applies specifically to any mitzvah we fulfill in life. There is gain and loss involved all at once. It is for this reason that the rabbis tell us, in Ethics of the Fathers, to “weigh the loss of a mitzvah against the gain.” They add that we should also “weigh the gain of a sin against its loss.”

It’s worthy of note that the order switches; when referring to a mitzvah the rabbis warn to weigh the loss against the gain, and regarding a sin they say to weigh the gain against the loss. This may be because when it comes to doing a mitzvah we focus on what we are sacrificing, on the loss. We are warned to take that loss which is prominent in our minds and place it against the great gain which we are less prone to focus on in the moment. When it comes to a sin the opposite is true. We focus primarily on the gain and need to take that gain which is in the forefront for us and balance it against the loss which we have pushed back to the recesses of our consciousness and need to remember to avoid serious mistakes.

In Deuteronomy (10:12-13), Moses says to the people that God does not ask much of them. Then he says what God does want, and it is a long list, which includes loving and fearing God and following every one of his commandments. Nachmanides resolves this apparent contradiction by pointing out the oft missed last words of these verses. The text states that all that God asks is letov lach – for your own good. When someone, for example a doctor, tells us to do things that are for our own good they can’t ask too much because they’re not asking for anything for themselves. When God commands us to do things it may sometimes feel like we must give up a lot for Him. Truly all God asks for is in our own best interest.

At the end of his life, in one act , Moses makes what seems like a sacrifice and what is also for his own good. Similarly, on a daily basis we may feel like we are giving something up to do the will of God. In truth keeping a life of Torah is what is best for us. As Moses tells the people in his parting words (Deuteronomy 11:27), listening to God’s word is a blessing in and of itself. May we be blessed to listen and see that when we follow the path of righteousness we always win.