Rabbi Yakov Haber
Missed Opportunities and Seizing the Moment
Dedicated as a z'chut for Shalom ‘al Yisrael and continued Divine protection over the inhabitants of the Holy Land under missile attack and over the courageous soldiers defending Eretz Yisrael.
The Torah describes Moshe's first prophetic encounter:
And an Angel of G-d appeared to him in the heart of the fire from within the bush, and he [Moshe] saw and behold the bush was burning with fire but the bush was not being consumed. And Moshe said: "Let me turn now and see this great sight, why the bush is not being consumed. And Hashem saw that he turned to see, and G-d called out to him from within the bush and said, "Moshe Moshe" and he said, "here I am".... And He said: "I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob, and Moshe hid his face for he was afraid of gazing toward G-d" (Sh'mos 3:2-6).
Commenting on Moshe's hiding of his face, the Talmud in B'rachot (7a) records:
It was taught in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Karcha: "So said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Moshe: ‘When I wanted [to show the Divine Presence to you], you did not want; now that you want, I do not want. [A reference to Hashem's refusal to honor Moshe's later request of "Show me your Glory" to which G-d replied: "Man cannot see Me and live" (Ki Tissa 33:18,20)]
The commentaries note that in the opinion of R. Yehoshua, Moshe lost the opportunity to comprehend more of the Divine, not necessarily as a punishment for his initial reluctance, but rather since when he requested this again, the Children of Israel had already sinned with the Golden Calf and consequently Moshe, whose whole rise to greatness was related to his leadership of the Jewish People, was not able to reach this highest level of comprehension of Hashem.
An enormous lesson emerges from this statement of R. Yehoshua. Opportunities for religious growth constantly present themselves. As Mesillat Yesharim and many others note, life is a series of challenges and trials designed to strengthen the person and prod them toward higher and higher heights of ‘avodat Hashem whether in study, family, communal or business contexts. In the opinion of R. Yeshoshua, Moshe Rabbeinu's failure to seize the opportunity of Divine favor to comprehend more about G-d, led to a situation where the opportunity did not again present itself due to the cheit ha'eigel. On the other hand, a friend recently shared a d'var Torah with me that Moshe did "seize the moment" to investigate the miraculous burning bush not being consumed by the flames. This central moment led to the whole unfolding of events leading to Moshe's rise to leadership as prophet, redeemer, and lawgiver. Had he not reflected on this Divine miracle, perhaps the "window of opportunity" for his rise to greatness would not return.
Specifically, situations and times of distress serve as enormous opportunities for growth. Turnusrufus, the Roman general, challenges R. Akiva, "If G-d loves the poor, why does he not support them?" R. Akiva responds: "if not for this, we would not have an opportunity [for charity] to save us from Gehinnom." (Bava Basra 10a) The message implied seems to be that suffering is meant to be utilized as an opportunity for Divine service by utilizing that situation to attempt to alleviate the suffering by engaging in acts of g'milut chessed, one of the three foundations of the world.
By extension, times of distress should lead to increased prayer. A separate Divine commandment directs us to pour our hearts out to G-d for Divine salvation in such situations (see Rachel's Weeping and Tefila B'eis Tzara). As a matter of fact, Midrashim speak of the fact that sometimes the entire reason Hashem brings about the distress is to produce this prayer (see Prayer and Needs).
Concerning other aspects of ‘avodat Hashem as well, when an individual Jew or the Jewish community is confronted with a time of suffering, they are prompted and directed to do T'shuva in all ways to eliminate the suffering (see Rambam, beginning of Hilchot Ta'aniyot). Increasing our Torah study, guarding our speech, engaging in "random acts of kindness", expanding our meticulousness in fulfilling Divine commandments both relating to service of G-d and our relationship with our fellow men are just some of the areas requiring constant improvement.
Allow me to share one story of "seizing the moment" in time of distress which occurred during the current military operation in Gaza. An organization called "Grandma's Packages" (apackagefromhome.org) sends care packages to soldier in Tzahal. Apparently they ran out of funding and couldn't send any more. Yeshivat Shvilei haTorah found out about this and asked how much it would cost to send a thousand packages to which the organization replied, "$16,000″. The head of the Yeshiva addressed the students pleading with them to call their parents and raise the necessary funding. Within days, they had the $16,000. Two non-observant soldiers came to the Yeshiva to express gratitude on behalf of the recipients of the students' families' generosity. They put on kippot for Mincha, davened with the boys and then addressed them after Mincha. They said, "what we have seen so far in Azza are ‘nissim v'nifla'ot'! By mistake, the army supply center where the soldiers were equipping themselves was next to an open room where they were preparing hundreds of body bags. Information received was that the Israeli army was anticipating 150 casualties a day. Although each life lost is an ‘olam malei, the relatively few casualties so far can be described as nothing short of obvious Divine protection. You here in the Yeshiva are our partners in battle. Your Tehillim , your Torah protects us!" The Yeshiva boys then sang and danced with the soldiers who were moved to tears. Had this opportunity for enormous chesed not been seized, the members of this Yeshiva would have lost this moment for growth, perhaps never to re-occur in their lives.
Recognizing the enormous Divine protection K'lal Yisrael has received and thanking and praising Hashem for this is another area in which we can develop spiritually. The daily headlines of missiles with only a rare casualty and the relatively few casualties in battle are nothing but an incredible, obvious display of Divine protection. This is not to underestimate the tragedy of the many wounded and shock victims, the constant fright of living under threat and the lost lives but the miraculous events remain nevertheless. Overcoming the temptation to attribute this salvation to a "lucky break" is a challenge to overcome. (See Sanhedrin 94a for an example of the pitfall of not praising Hashem for miracles.)
Our hearts and minds should be focused on bringing about an alleviation of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Jews under threat of missile attacks and the thousands of soldiers risking their lives in war not only through military and political means but also through spiritual means by following the directives of the Rambam quoted above to turn to G-d in T'shuva correcting and improving ourselves.
May Hashem always assist us in "seizing the moment" to use all of life's challenges for personal and communal growth in order to actualize our potential to ever greater heights of connection to our Creator.
See there for a dissenting opinion that Moshe acted properly. See also Sichot on Bamidbar by Rav Nebenzahl, Rav of the Old City of Jerusalem, for a fascinating resolution of this dispute.