Parshas Mattos: Keeping One’s Priorities in Order

In Parshas Matos, the first of this week’s double parshios (chutz la’aretz), the Torah teaches us about a startling exchange between the Bnei Gad, Bnei Reuven and Moshe Rabbeinu.  It is year forty of desert wanderings. The nation stands poised to imminently enter the Land, while Moshe is fast approaching his death on Ever la’Yarden, the eastern side of the Jordan River.  

Representatives of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe with an audacious request. Given that the land on Ever La’Yarden is lush pasture land for flocks, and these tribes are wealthy in sheep and cattle, and in need of lush grazing land to support their flocks, they appeal to Moshe and Elazar ha’Kohen and say:

אִםמָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָיֻתַּן אֶתהָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, לַאֲחֻזָּה אַלתַּעֲבִרֵנוּ, אֶתהַיַּרְדֵּן if we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Yarden (River).  

In shock over their request, Moshe immediately retorts: Shall your brothers go to war (upon entering Canaan) and you will remain here (in imagined safety, tranquility and stability)?!  Is this not what your forefathers did – when they rejected the Land – and they turned the hearts of the nation away from the Land, and from G-d!  

To quell Moshe’s concerns, the representatives strike a deal with him: גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּEnclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children (Bamidbar 32:16).  To which Moshe counteroffers: בְּנוּלָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם, וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם; וְהַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיכֶם, תַּעֲשׂוּbuild for yourselves cities for your children, and enclosures for your flocks, and what has come from your mouth shall you do (ibid, v.24).  

Note that they put protection for their animals before that of their children, while Moshe reversed the order and instructed them to first care for the well-being of their children, and only after that, for their animals.  From here the Sages (Tanchuma) derive that: חָסִים הָיוּ עַל מָמוֹנָם יוֹתֵר מִבְּנֵיהֶם וּבְנוֹתֵיהֶםthey were more concerned with their money than their sons and their daughters, for they put mention of their livestock ahead of their children.  Moshe said to them, this is not right: עֲשׂוּ הָעִקָּר עִקָּר וְהַטָּפֵל טָפֵל – make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary!  First build cities for your children and afterward, enclosures for your flocks (quoted by Rashi to v.16).

Rabbi Yissocher Frand teaches, “When we look at this incident, we say to ourselves, ‘How foolish can people be?  How warped can their values be?  How can anyone put the welfare of his cattle before the welfare of his children?’

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, something bizarre that happened thousands of years ago.  It is an everyday phenomenon.  People become focused on their livelihood, on developing a business, on advancing professionally, on building a practice, and their kids get lost in the shuffle.  They don’t realize that they are making the exact same mistake as the tribes of Gad and Reuven.  But it is true.  It happens all too often.

“Rashi writes (32:24) that the tribes of Gad and Reuven did not return home to the Trans-Jordan until after seven years of conquest and the seven years of apportionment.  By choice, they remained in Eretz Yisrael for an additional seven years longer than Moshe commanded them to be there.  They were away from home for a full fourteen years.  The little children the fathers left behind were teenagers, practically adults, when their fathers returned.  The Medrash tells us that their fathers were shocked to find that their sons had long hair, and that they were indistinguishable from their pagan neighbors.

“This may be the tragic result when one gives priority to their wealth over their children” (Rabbi Frand on the Parashah, p.244-245).

There is a well-known saying, author unknown: “No one on their deathbed ever said: Gee, I wish I had spent more time in the office.”  While work is ennobling, important, rewarding, and most certainly a necessary part of life – And Hashem Elokim took the man, וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַןעֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּand He placed him in Gan Eden to work it and to guard it (Bereishis 2:15) – one’s children cannot be the casualties of one’s work.  

Reuven and Gad placed the priority of wealth over that of children, and for this they suffered the consequences.  Nechama Leibowitz a’h points out that their focus was solely on their flocks, as evidenced by the opening pasuk of the narrative, which begins and ends with the word מִקְנֶ֣ה. As the pasuk says: וּמִקְנֶ֣ה רַ֗ב הָיָ֞ה לִבְנֵ֧י רְאוּבֵ֛ן וְלִבְנֵי־גָ֖ד עָצ֣וּם מְאֹ֑דוְהִנֵּ֥ה הַמָּק֖וֹם מְק֥וֹם מִקְנֶֽהAnd abundant livestock was to the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad, very much… and behold (Trans-Jordan) was a place for livestock (32:1) (NL, as quoted in Unlocking the Torah Text, Bamidbar).  

Why did Moshe conclude his counter-offer by telling them: וְהַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיכֶם, תַּעֲשׂוּand what emanates from your mouth you shall do (v.24)?

The Ksav Sofer answers, “Moshe knew with whom he was dealing.  People who could even think of protecting their money before they protect their children cannot be trusted.  They are so intent on their wealth that they can, and may, do anything.  Therefore, Moshe had to exhort them to keep their word.  Rav Tzadok Ha’Kohen m’Lublin (d.1900) notes that the desire for money is greater than any other material desire, since it is in the only one without limit… The quest for wealth can never be satiated, as a person always dreams and desires of acquiring more and more… All too often, the children are the price of the wealth” (Rabbi Frand on the Parashah, p.244-245).

A number of years ago in Mishpacha magazine, I read the following: “How do children spell LOVE?  T.I.M.E.”  Let us learn from Moshe’s rebuke to Bnei Gad and Reuven and ensure our ikar is ikar and tafel is tafel – and let’s be sure we know what is tafel and what is the ikar. 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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