Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
The Torah tells us that when the Jewish people were preparing to leave Egypt, Moses was involved with in the mitzvah of taking the remains of Joseph to be buried in Israel. The Talmud in Sotah quotes a verse from the book of Joshua which seems to contradict the Torah’s account here; the verse there states that the Jewish people, not Moses, brought the bones of Joseph to Israel. The Talmud answers with a principle that if a person begins a mitzvah and but another person completes it, then the Torah credits the one who completes it as having fulfilled the mitzvah. Since Moses only began the mitzvah of burying Joseph but did not complete it, it is not credited to him, but rather to the Jewish people, who completed it.
There is another Midrash that seems to contradict this concept. The Midrash Shocher Tov says that King David is credited with building the Temple as it says in Psalms, “Mizmoor shir Chanukas habayis leDavid, (A song, a Psalm of the inauguration of the Temple to David)1” -- even though David only began the building but did not complete it. This implies that the main credit is attributed to the ‘beginner’, not the completer2. Rav Moshe Feinstein resolves this contradiction: He writes that if the one who started it did not complete the mitzvah through no fault of his own then he is credited with it, even though he did not finish it. However, if he bears even the slightest guilt for not completing the mitzvah, then it is credited to the completer.
King David bore absolutely no responsibility for his inability to complete the building of the Temple. God told him that he could not do so, therefore, its building is attributed to him. In contrast, Moses could not complete the mitzvah of burying Joseph because he wasn't allowed to enter Israel due to his sin of hitting the rock3.
Moses’ guilt in this instance is minimal, and yet it is sufficient to deny him the merit of the mitzvah of the burial of Joseph. The same is surely true of situations in our lives when we have the opportunity to complete some kind of mitzvah but we fail to do so because of our lack of persistence. This applies to learning - when a new class begins there are often large numbers of people present but as the weeks go on, gradually less and less appear.
Another common area of failing in persistence is spiritual growth. For example, on certain occasions such as the Aseres Yemay Teshuva (ten days of repentance) or times of suffering, people are inspired to take on commitments to grow in a certain way. However, with the passage of time, these undertakings often become distant memories. What suggestions are there that can make it more likely that we will be able to persist with our commitments?
The Chofetz Chaim wrote the great work of Jewish law, Mishna Berurah over the course of 25 years - during this time he suffered many tribulations which hindered the writing of the book. The vast majority of people would have capitulated under such travails, seeing them as a sign that this undertaking was not meant to succeed. However, the Chofetz Chaim realized that all the challenges to prevent the Mishna Berurah being written. Accordingly, he persisted and succeeded in writing one of the most important books of the past hundred years. He was able to persist because he recognized the vital importance of what he was trying to do. This enabled him to overcome all the challenges and complete the Mishna Berurah. This provides us with one idea of how to succeed in our undertakings - if we can remain focused on the significance of what we are trying to do then we will have more chance of persisting.
One may argue that we do indeed have moments of inspiration where, like the Chofetz Chaim, we recognize the significance of our projects. However, with time it is difficult to maintain this level of inspiration and we are unable to persist. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz addresses this problem4. He discusses the case of Palti ben Layish. David married the daughter of King Saul but Saul believed that it was an invalid marriage and he gave Michal to be married to Palti. Palti suspected that David’s marriage was valid and therefore undertook not to touch Michal. Right at the beginning of their ’marriage’ he stuck a sword between them and said that anyone who acts improperly should be struck by this sword5. Rav Shmuelevitz asks, what exactly did this act achieve? If his inclination would overcome him how would the sword stop him? He was the one who stuck the sword and he could remove it whenever he wanted.
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that at the beginning of this test Palti attained a powerful recognition of how terrible it would be to do such an impropriety. However, he feared that over the course of time this clarity would weaken and he may fall to the temptations of the yetzer hara (negative inclination). In order to prevent this from happening, at the very moment of inspiration he stuck the sword in between them and that sword would serve as a reminder of the power of his initial convictions.
So too in our lives we experience moments of inspiration where we attain a heightened sense of awareness of an important matter. But the inspiration often wears away. We see from the above discussion that one way of maintaining the inspiration is by doing a concrete act right away, and hopefully this act will help keep the momentum. An example of this is when we hear a powerful piece of wisdom that we should act upon it by immediately beginning to put it into action. Another example is when we attain a heightened sense of closeness to God that we try to do something to help remember and tap into that moment. Rav Noach Orlowek suggests taking an internal ‘photograph’ of that moment so that you can always ‘look at it’ when you want inspiration and tap into that powerful moment. These are possible ways in which we can strive to not just begin endeavors but to complete them as well.