Gather your mitzvot while you still can

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Beshalach
Exodus 13:17—17:16
Judges 4:4—5:31

Torah observers believe that although you can’t take it with you, there is something that you can send ahead: the mitzvot you have acquired during your lifetime.

“And Moses took Joseph’s remains with him for he had made the children of Israel take an oath.” (Exodus 13:19)

Moses had the vision to do mitzvot while the nation was preoccupied with collecting the material treasures of Egypt before their miraculous Exodus. Moses, recalling the promise made to Joseph, took Joseph’s remains “with him” to be reinterred in Israel.

The words “with him” appear to be superfluous. Would it not have sufficed to say that he took Joseph’s remains?

Rabbi Mordechai Ilan offers the commentary that what is meant is that Moses took the zchut (merit) of this mitzvah with him to the World to Come. Thus it became his forever. The Talmud Sotah 13d refers to Moses with the verse in Mishlei (Proverbs 108), “The wise heart gathers mitzvot.” Moses was cleverly collecting an immortal treasure, one he could send ahead.

The Chofetz Chayim illustrated this idea with the following parable:

A poor man came to hear about an island where jewels were scattered on the ground free for the taking. He thought, “If I could only get there for five minutes, I’m sure my problems will be over.”

Ultimately he was hired as a deckhand on a ship, although he remained skeptical. He arrived on the island and lo and behold — diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, all over the ground like pebbles!

He quickly filled his pockets and then, being hungry, he went to a grocery store to purchase food. When he tried to pay with a large diamond, the grocer laughed. “If I wanted diamonds, I don’t need you; I can go get some myself. Why would anyone want diamonds?”

The stunned man asked, “What do you mean? Look how beautiful they are!”

“Of course they’re beautiful,” replied the grocer, “but I can stand by the door and enjoy their beauty. The baker worked hard for that loaf of bread. He wants something of value, not a diamond.”

“But what has more value than a diamond?” asked the man.

“Shmaltz!”

“Animal fat? Are you serious?”

“Indeed, we have very little shmaltz on this island. It’s a rare commodity and people will pay a fortune for it.”

Having no choice, the man emptied his pockets of the gems and began to deal in shmaltz, becoming very good at it. Never considering the island his permanent home, he needed to accumulate enough riches to provide for his family for many years to come. Gradually he slipped into the mentality of the island, and his concept of wealth became a large accumulation of shmaltz.

After filling several warehouses with shmaltz, he packed it in special cartons, loaded it on a ship and sailed for home. There his family waited, excited to see the riches he brought home. The workers unloaded the grease-soaked, foul-smelling cartons.

“Where are the jewels?” his wife demanded,

“Jewels, he answered. “What are they worth? This is shmaltz!”

His wife exclaimed, “Whatever shmaltz is worth, you can’t transport it home. It’s spoiled and completely worthless. Where are the jewels?”

Fortunately, remaining in the man’s pocket were a few small jewels that he was able to sell to support his family in some comfort. But he could never forgive himself for losing the opportunity to bring home bags of jewels. If only he had resisted being swept up in the values of the islanders.

The Chofetz Chaim says that our world is like that island. G-d sends us here to gather mitzvot, which are ours for the taking. We could return to Paradise with our pockets full of mitzvot. But we get caught up in the values of this world. Disregarding the mitzvot, we pursue material gain. When we return to the “World of Truth,” all of our money is worthless. The only benefit we have is from the few mitzvot we find in the lining of our pockets. Our regret can never be overcome.

Moses never had such a regret. Knowing the value of mitzvot, he gathered them at every opportunity.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.