This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Matot, provides us with an important look at the different priorities that people have.
We encounter this subject as Am Yisrael is about to enter the Land of Israel after 40 years of wandering in the desert. Entering the Land is not going to be easy.
It will involve war and everyone understands this well.
And then, two tribes in the nation say that they are not interested in entering the Land of Israel. The tribes of Reuven and Gad see the vast areas northeast of Eretz Yisrael and like them. These two tribes “had an abundance of livestock very numerous” and these vast areas suited their pecuniary needs.
Representatives of these two tribes turn to Moshe Rabbeinu and present him with the possibility of settling in these areas. Moshe’s response is unequivocal. He reacts sharply and utters the following famous sentence: “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6) Moshe’s anger is due to his suspicion that these two tribes are trying to get out of the battle that the nation is facing due to strictly economic motives.
This is an unacceptable reason for escaping battle, Moshe tells them.
After the two tribes heard Moshe’s reaction, they declared the following: “We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel... We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.” (Numbers 32:17-18) When Moshe Rabbeinu hears this explicit declaration, he makes a formal agreement with them and agrees to their settling in the areas that meet their economic needs.
However, when looking again at this Torah portion, we find another reason for Moshe’s anger. And afterward, we understand the abatement of his anger and his agreement to give them what they requested.
When the representatives of the two tribes first appear before Moshe, they present their request with the following words: “[This] is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock... If it pleases you, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage...” (Numbers 32:4-5) After Moshe’s initial response, they present their plans to him again: “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children.” (Numbers 32:16) But Moshe still does not consent. When they summarize their request again, the wording changes: “Our children and our wives, our livestock and our cattle will remain there...” (Numbers 32:26) Only then does Moshe grant their request.
How is the wording different in these three requests? The first time, they presented their request as concern for the large number of cattle, for economic gain only (“an abundance of livestock”). The second time, they added their concern for their families (“and cities for our children”), but they still mention the abundant livestock and property before family. But only the third time do they present the correct order of priorities – family and only then property (“our children and our wives, our livestock and our cattle”), and then Moshe is willing to grant their request.
The Torah presents us with different models of priorities.
There is the person whose concern, emotions and thoughts are focused on his property, but he neglects the needs of his family. This is clearly a bad model; everyone knows that.
There is another person who invests energies and efforts also in his family, but his priorities are still defective because if he is ever faced with the decision of staying at work one more hour or spending that hour with his family, he will prefer to accumulate wealth and status rather than take care of his family. This is also not good.
The correct order of priorities is: Invest the best of our energies in our family, which is the most important thing. Our wives and children are our main goal and focus, and they are also the place that we can most influence and benefit. Investing in family is always a wise investment and no one can lose from it.
Only later, when we know that we provided our family with its emotional and spiritual needs, only when we are sure that our investment in educating our children and that the love among members of a couple is sufficient, only then can we turn to accumulating wealth, gaining social status and other areas that we enjoy investing in to reap benefits.
We must always remember that material gains and making money are only a means to a greater end – family and values. We must never turn the means into an end because we would then lose those closest to us and our future.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.