Matot/Masei- Modern Messages from Biblical Priorities

Throughout Bnai Yisrael’s time in the wilderness, they are overwhelmed with conflicting priorities. The generation of Jews who left Egypt was constantly plagued with pressure to turn around and abandon their quest for Israel, as well as ever-present rebellions which tried to put G-d and His service lower in their list of priorities. The next generation was faced with less grave clashes of priority, but there were still times where they lost focus of the important things when faced with adversity. In our times, we also are confronted with conflicting priorities that try to pry our attention away from the most important things in our life- our עבודת השם, our family values, and our connection to ארץ ישראל. In our first sidra, Parshat Matot, the request of Bnei Reuven and Gad leads בני ישראל to also question their priorities, and I believe that if we look closer into this story in the parsha, we can find some chizuk that’ll help us with our contemporary conflicts of precedence as well.

In our פרשה, when the two and a half tribes approach Moshe, we see:

וַיָּבאוּ בְנֵי־גָד וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וַיּאמְרוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָר הַכּהֵן וְאֶל־נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה לֵאמר …הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה ה’ לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה הִוא וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ מִקְנֶה. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִם־מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ יֻתַּן אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ לַאֲחֻזָּה אַל־תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן… וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ:

And the children of Gad and Reuven approached Moshe and they said… The Land which G-d smote before Israel is a good land for flocks and those who work them. If we have found favor in your eyes, please give this land to your servants as an inheritance, do not make us cross the Jordan… And they again approach Moshe and said; we want to build pens for our flocks and cities for our children here. (במדבר לב:ב,ד-ה,טז)

There are two obvious problems here; בני ראובן וגד, rejecting their inheritance in the Holy Land, beg not to have to go to the Promised Land, in the very way that their forebears did shortly before they were sentenced to die out in the desert. For this reason, Moshe gave them harsh rebuke, reminding them of what exactly they were rejecting and what could happen if they continue to pursue their goal. Then, even as they backtrack and agree to send soldiers with the rest of עם ישראל, they make another mistake, which is elaborated by Rashi:

נבנה למקננו פה – חסים היו על ממונם יותר מבניהם ובנותיהם, שהקדימו מקניהם לטפם. אמר להם משה לא כן עשו, העיקר עיקר והטפל טפל, בנו לכם תחלה ערים לטפכם ואחר כך גדרות לצאנכם:

We will build for our flocks there- They were more concerned about their money than they children, that they put their flocks before their children in their request. Moshe said to them: it shouldn’t be like this, do not confuse the primary with the secondary- build cities for your families first, then pens for your flocks.

The two and a half tribes not only lacked proper priorities in terms of ארץ ישראל, they were also incorrect in their personal lives. They valued their money more than their families, and were also told off by Moshe for that. This area in particular is one that our Modern Orthodox world also has trouble prioritizing. The pull to purchase big houses, meals at expensive restaurants, exotic vacations, and fancy cars makes it difficult to fit other necessities into our lifestyle, like paying for a proper Jewish education, giving צדקה to needy people, and supporting community shuls and other Jewish institutions. In our yearning to match the extravagant lifestyles of our neighbors, we sometimes tend to forget the most important investments that we can make, with our money and our time.

The מדרש רבה on our פסוקים writes on our culture crisis and offers some important מוסר for בני ראובן וגד and for us as well:

ומקנה רב זש”ה (קהלת י) “לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו” … ד”א לב חכם לימינו זה משה ולב כסיל לשמאלו אלו בני ראובן ובני גד שעשו את העיקר טפל ואת הטפל עיקר שחיבבו את ממונם יותר מן הנפשות שהן אומרים למשה גדרות צאן נבנה למקננו פה וערים לטפנו אמר להם משה אינה כלום אלא עשו את העיקר עיקר תחלה בנו לכם ערים לטפכם ואחר כך וגדרות לצאנכם הוי לב חכם לימינו זה משה ולב כסיל לשמאלו אלו בני ראובן ובני גד אמר להם הקב”ה אתם חיבבתם את מקניכם יותר מן הנפשות חייכם אין בו ברכה עליהם נאמר (שם כ) “נחלה מבוהלת בראשונה ואחריתה לא תבורך” וכה”א (שם כג) “אל תיגע להעשיר מבינתך חדל” ,ואיזה הוא עשיר השמח בחלקו שנאמר (תהלים קכט) יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך.

And many flocks- That which was written “The heart of a wise man to the right and the heart of a fool to the left” (Ecl. 10)… “heart of a wise man” is Moshe, and “heart of a fool” are the children of Reuven and Gad that mixed up their priorities, that cared more about their money than their families… Moshe told them to straighten out their priorities and build their cities first and then their pens for their flocks. “The heart of a wise man” is Moshe, and “the heart of a fool” are the children of Reuven and Gad, for G-d said to them; You, who valued your flocks over your children, will never see success from them, for it says “an estate that is hastily gotten in the beginning, will never yield blessing in the end” (Proverbs 20), and “Be careful not to be rich from ceasing your wisdom” (23). And who is the richest? The one who is happy with his lot, as it says “when you eat the fruits of your labors, you will be happy and all will be good for you” (Psalms 128).

This מדרש, picking up on the real problem behind בני ראובן וגד’s conflict of priorities, beautifully reminds them and us of what’s most important in our lives- to take care of our families, to be happy with our lot, and not to forget our “wisdom” in our attempt to make wealth, because if we do, then, G-d forbid, our wealth will never yield good for us, the cruelest fate that could be. This is very important מוסר as each of us makes decisions every day in where to prioritize our time, energy and money.