Is it possible to be spiritual and selfish at the same time? Let us have a look at the words of the Torah that shed important light on this question.

Vayasa Moshe et ha-am—“Moses made the people journey from the sea.”1 The great miracle had happened. The sea had split and the Egyptian army was no more. The word vayasa—“he made [them] journey”—implies that Moses had to force his people to move on. But why was this necessary? Why wouldn’t they move on their own?

According to Rashi, the enemy was so confident of victory against the Israelites that they bedecked their horses and chariots with gold, silver and precious jewels. These treasures were now being washed up on the seashore, and the Jews were collecting the riches. So they were in no mood to move on. But Moses said they had a date with G‑d at Mount Sinai. As the nation’s leader, he had to compel them to carry on their journey.

The Zohar2 gives a more spiritual explanation. We are taught that the divine revelation at the splitting of the sea was quite an extraordinary experience. In the words of our sages, “What a simple maidservant saw at the sea, even the great prophets were not privileged to see.”3 According to this mystical view, it was not the material wealth they were obsessed with, but rather the incredible spiritual delights they were experiencing.

Either way, it was up to Moses to move them along to their appointment with destiny. And the question is this: If it was gold and silver that was delaying their journey to Sinai, we can well understand the need for Moses to hurry them on. But if it was the spiritual experience of inspired revelation, why move on? Why not stay there as long as possible? Surely, the more G‑dly revelation the better!

The answer is that G‑d was calling. Sinai was beckoning. The entire purpose of the Exodus and all the miracles in Egypt and at the sea was nothing more than to receive the Torah at Sinai. That was the revelation that would give the Jewish people its unique way of life and its very raison d’être. Sinai represents our mission, our mandate. Sinai made us G‑d’s messengers on earth. However we may understand the concept of a chosen people, it was the Sinaitic experience that made us that. Any detours or distractions from the journey to Sinai are therefore out of the question—no matter how lofty or spiritual they might be.

It comes as no great shock to learn that gold and silver are not as important as Sinai. But that spirituality, too, must take second place to Sinai—this is indeed big news. And what exactly is Sinai? Torah. And what is Torah? The will of G‑d. In other words, the bottom line is: what does G‑d want? How does He want us to act, to live our lives? So, the big news story here is that even the most amazing spiritual experience, the most extraordinary revelation, is not as important as doing what G‑d wants us to do.

It is a very important message that emerges from this one word, vayasa. It’s not what we want that counts, but what G‑d wants. If we want money and diamonds, and He wants to give us His Torah, then we leave the loot and we go to Sinai. And even if it is a spiritual experience we seek, and G‑d says “Go to Sinai,” we still go to Sinai and we leave the spiritual inspiration for another time.

The following is a true story. It once happened back in the old country that late one night, a wagon driver ran into a yeshivah and cried out to the students to come out and help him. It was urgent, he said. His wagon had overturned, and his horse was stuck in a ditch and was in danger of dying. He needed help to get the wagon upright. It was late at night, and there was no one else he could turn to, so he appealed to the yeshivah students to come to his assistance.

At this point the students’ Talmudic training kicked in, and a long halachic debate ensued. Was it right to leave their Torah study for the sake of a horse? After all, is not Torah study equal to all the other mitzvot combined? On the other hand, the horse provided this Jew’s livelihood. Which takes precedence? The debate raged on and on—and when they finally did decide to go out and help the poor man, it was too late. The horse had died.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in our own spirituality that we become quite selfish. Spiritually selfish, of course, but selfish nonetheless. At the end of the day, it’s not whether we are into materialism or monotheism, money or metaphysics. The ultimate question—and, in fact, the only question—is: what does G‑d want of me at this moment in time? Where should I be and what should I be doing right now?

So, if you find yourself in a quandary or on the horns of a difficult dilemma, ask yourself this very question: What would G‑d want? Yes, sometimes it might be helping a horse out of a ditch. But if that is the call of the hour, then so be it. It might not be very spiritual, but it is the right thing to do.

And if it’s the right thing to do, that makes it very G‑dly.