June 19, 2003
The Greatest Good
Parashat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
The most exciting weeknight in our house is Thursday; our family eats a hasty dinner and I rush off, two or three children in tow, to Tomchei Shabbos. Every week, my children join me in packing and delivering "Shabbat packages" brought to those members of our community who need a little help just to "make Shabbat" -- grape juice, challah, chicken, eggs, etc. Tomchei Shabbos delivers to more than 200 families every week, through the volunteer work of more than 50 people, young and old.
Every Thursday evening, as we are leaving the warehouse with our freshly packed boxes, each one of my children goes up to say thank you to Steve Berger, the tireless coordinator of Tomchei Shabbos. At each home where we stop to deliver, when the recipient comes out to greet us (as they always do) my children again say thank you -- to the recipient of our Shabbat package.
They understand this powerful lesson: The greatest kindness you can do for someone is to make him/her feel worthwhile and to give him/her an avenue to make a difference. When these little children gather milk, challot, produce, etc. together to help pack a box, they feel at their best, because they understand that they are making a difference in someone else's Shabbat, in someone else's life. To invite someone to contribute -- in an area where he or she is capable -- is the greatest kindness you can bestow.
It seems that this is the gist of Moses' oddly worded invitation to his father-in-law:
And Moses said to Hovav.... "We are journeying to the place about which Hashem said, I will give it you; come with us, and we will do you good; for Hashem has spoken good concerning Israel."
And he said to him, "I will not go; but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred."
And he said, "Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you" (Numbers 10:29-32).
This conversation between Moses and his Midianite father-in-law took place at the foot of Sinai, just as the Israelites were about to depart on their triumphant march into Eretz Yisrael. Moses, in a statement of utter generosity, offers Hovav a place among the people, that he may benefit from the great goodness with which God blessed His people.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, z"l, once commented on this invitation:
"It was not an invitation that a son-in-law extended to his father-in-law. It was not an invitation extended by an individual to another human being to share the good things in life. It was more than that. It was an invitation extended by Moses, as a representative of Israel to all converts of all generations.... There is enough chesed [lovingkindness], goodness and happiness in the Torah to be transmitted to others and to be shared by others."
What is this great goodness? What was the beneficence that Moses was offering to Hovav? Indeed, what is the generosity extended by the Torah to all of mankind?
Oddly enough, Moses does not offer Hovav land or a position of honor among the people; he asks him to "be our eyes in the desert" -- to help lead the people through the wilderness, which he knows so well. What sort of beneficence is this on Moses' part?
This is the same lesson as that all of the wonderful Tomchei packers and drivers know: There is no greater goodness than asking someone to contribute to the betterment of society and to the welfare of his fellow man.
In an age where deeds are vendible and kind acts are considered commodities, we would do well to listen to Moses' invitation:
"And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you."
For those who wish to contribute their time and/or energy to Tomchei Shabbos, call (323) 931-0224.
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the associate director of Project Next Step.