Photo Credit: Jewish Press

After the amazing miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf – indeed, after a year of miracles – we would expect the Children of Israel to be preoccupied solely with coming closer to Hashem. Yet, immediately after it, the Torah says “Moshe made [the Jews] travel from the Yam Suf” (Shemos 15:22), and Rashi writes that Moshe had to force them to travel on since they were busy taking gold and silver ornaments from the Egyptians’ horses.

After such a miracle, how could the Jews possibly think about accumulating material wealth?

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This question becomes even stronger in light of the Ran’s opinion that the Jews eagerly started counting the days until they would receive the Torah from Hashem at Mount Sinai once they left Egypt (which is the origin of sefiras ha’omer). How can we reconcile this eagerness with their apparent urge to accumulate wealth?

According to Kabbalah, all physical objects and material affairs contain sparks of divine holiness, which we are expected to reveal and return to their source by utilizing them – directly or indirectly – to fulfill mitzvos. That’s why our Sages say (Rosh Hashanah 27a), “The Torah is concerned about Jewish possessions.” It’s also why the Torah contains the prohibition of bal tashchis, which forbids wasting or destroying anything permitted that can be used for a good purpose. Hashem wants us to preserve the sparks of kedushah within everything so they can be revealed and elevated.

In Egypt, Moshe told the Jews in Hashem’s name, “And you shall empty out Egypt” (Shemos 3:22) by borrowing their silver and gold ornaments and expensive clothes. In doing so, they would complete their spiritual work in Egypt – the underlying purpose of their work as slaves – of emptying that impure land of its latent divine sparks.

Now, after the splitting of the sea, the Jews perceived new opportunities to complete this divine task by taking all the gold and silver adorning the Egyptians’ horses. That explains their deep involvement in this task despite the great miracle. They considered it a sacred responsibility.

Nevertheless, Moshe Rabbeinu, by divine command, forced them to stop. The same G-d who commanded them in Egypt to extract divine sparks now told them it was no longer necessary to do so. The task was complete. The word “force” used by our Sages doesn’t mean the Jews weren’t willing to listen to Hashem; rather, it indicates how deeply involved they were in their task, which they now had to discard to fulfill the new divine command of proceeding towards Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

This story teaches us to remember that while we must always be completely invested in fulfilling Hashem’s will, sometimes He expects us to change our focus. For example, one who studies Torah with great assiduity should know that, on occasion, he is expected to take time off from his studies to help other Jews come closer to Hashem. And someone who’s involved in a worldly occupation – directly elevating divine sparks – must set aside times for Torah study.

(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. He can be reached at Lubavitchyouth@gmail.com.