Pharaoh’s servants convince him to negotiate with Moshe and the Israelites. He is ready to let them go on their religious holiday if the G-d of the Hebrews will refrain from unleashing a plague of locusts upon them.
And Moshe and Aharon were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go and worship Hashem, your Lord. Who and who are the ones who will go?”
And Moshe said “We will go with our children and our elderly; with our sons and daughters, with our sheep and cattle we will go. Because it is a holiday of Hashem for us.” (Ex. 10:8-9)
Interestingly, G-d Himself asks a very similar question of the prophet Yeshayahu hundreds of years later. Yeshayahu experiences his most famous vision of G-d sitting on His throne, the train of His robes filling the holy Temple, as He is surrounded by a chorus of His singing angels:
And I heard the voice of G-d speaking, “Who shall I send and who will go on our behalf?”
And I said, “Here I am. Send me.” (6:8)
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, a close student of Rav Kook, notes that when Hashem asks who will go, Yeshayahu volunteers himself – “Send me,” he says, showing that he wishes to be G-d’s messenger. This, Rabbi Charlop suggests, is a crucial element in both conversations about “going” that we have seen, the conversation between Hashem and Yeshayahu as well as the conversation between Pharaoh and Moshe.
G-d wants not only a messenger, but someone who wants to go on His behalf. In response, Yeshayahu willingly volunteers. Pharaoh also wants to know exactly “who” is interested in going on this holiday. “Who and who are going,” he asks. Not “Who is going” but “Who and who,” as in, Give me a list of each person who actually wants to go. He apparently expects that the list will be relatively short.
No doubt, hearing that everyone wants to go – young and elderly, children and even animals – was an unpleasant shock.
The similar language and themes of these conversations highlights the need for our sense of personal commitment in our relationships with G-d. However, Rabbi Charlop’s reading, though it is homiletical, raises a very strange idea. We can understand – and be impressed by – what it means that everyone wants to go and worship G-d, young and old, sons and daughters. But how are we to understand Moshe’s assertion, in Rabbi Charlop’s view, that even the sheep and cattle want to go?
Sheep and cattle want to eat; they want to spend time outside and with their young. But can it really be said that they wish to worship G-d?
Rabbi Charlop writes:
“Even our sheep and cattle are willingly drawn after us, since just as Israel sought redemption… so was it revealed in their property a deep desire to go after G-d.”
The meaning of this idea is not, I think, that the sheep wanted to worship G-d. Rather, we should understand that even the things that Bnei Yisrael owned and used made it clear just how dedicated they were to G-d and their relationship with Him. They owned sheep and cattle, clothing and shoes, food and drink, and it was clear from the way that they conducted themselves in their day to day lives that anything they purchased was to be a tool in the building of their spiritual lives.
Indeed, the way we use those things we hold in our possession is very revealing about who we are and what we seek to accomplish. As we know, clothing makes the man, and our clothing, cars, and homes may show our aspirations in business and in life. Some of those aspirations – and they really are clear to anyone who looks at us – may be loftier than others, to put it mildly.
It goes without saying that we each need to make a living, we each need respite, we each need friendship, family, and that a healthy person can benefit from certain luxuries and pleasures. Yet, we need more than this: we need to ensure that the things we own will be tools in our ethical and religious toolboxes and not, G-d forbid, distractions or things that hold us back from attaining or achieving ethical and spiritual excellence. We might think of our food as necessary to having the energy to serve G-d; our cars as shul, school, and chesed vehicles; our watches as things to help us maintain mastery of our time, and so on.
I will admit – painful as it is to do so – that I am in no way above materialism, excess, luxury, and distractions. If you are like me and in need of some refinement when it comes to material goods and materialism in general, then let us begin to grapple with this issue. In some areas, we may have the right balance, while others are in need of improvement. Where we need improvement, let us remind ourselves that we are unfinished and dynamic products and that change, growth, and increased self mastery remain very much possible. We may make time to study ethical literature, practice doing what we know is necessary and important, and take leaves from the pages of disciplined success stories. In time, we may become such success stories ourselves.