“Setting Our Priorities Straight”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming Shabbat, the double parashiot Matot and Masei will be read in synagogues throughout the world.

In parashat Matot, we are told that the tribes of Reuven and Gad had large numbers of herds and cattle. The Bible reports that the tribal leaders of Reuven and Gad saw the luscious lands of Yaazer and Gilead, located on the Eastern side of the Jordan, and determined that these lands would serve as ideal pasture and grazing for their cattle. The leaders of Gad and Reuven,(later joined by half of Menashe), approached Moshe and Elazar, the high priest and the princes of the 12 tribes, and asked for the right to settle in that portion of the land. Moshe was distressed by the request, thinking that Reuven and Gad were trying to shirk their obligation to help in the battle for the land of Canaan.

In Numbers 32:6, Moshe excoriates the tribes of Reuven and Gad saying: “Ha’a’chay’chem ya’voh’uh la’mil’chama, va’atem taysh’vu pho?” Shall your brothers go out to battle while you remain here? Moshe further accuses Reuven and Gad of trying to cause the other tribes to lose faith in the land of Israel, comparing them to the scouts, who in the previous generation had caused the People of Israel to lose the right to enter the land of Israel.

In response, the leaders of the two tribes say (Numbers 32:16): “Gid’rot tzohn niv’neh l’mik’naynu pho, v’ar’im l’tah’paynu.” We will build pens for our livestock and cities for our small children. Furthermore, they promised to send troops to join the other tribes of Israel until the battle for the land was complete. They vowed not to return to their homes until all the people of Israel were settled on their patrimony.

Moshe is delighted by how forthcoming they are and invites Reuven and Gad to serve in the vanguard of the Israeli army that will hopefully drive the Canaanite enemies out of the land.

Moshe, however, makes a subtle correction to their original response. In Numbers 32:24, he says to the tribes of Reuven and Gad: “B’nu la’chem a’rim l’top’chem, ug’day’rot l’tzon’ah’chem.” Yes, do whatever you must, but first build cities for yourselves and for your small children, and then erect pens for your flocks. Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, says that Moshe strongly corrected the two tribes for saying that they would first build pens for their cattle and only then erect cities for their children, implying that they were more concerned with their sheep than their children. Moshe strongly asserts that care for the children must be their first priority.

In the ritual of the Pidyon Haben, the Redemption of the Firstborn Son, the Cohen asks the child’s father, “Do you prefer to give me your firstborn, the firstborn of his mother, or would you rather redeem him for the five shekels required by the Torah?” In effect, the Cohen asks the parents, do you want your child or your money? Do you intend to put career ahead of family, or will you see that the primary focus of life should be your children?

In our age of overwhelming materialism, most people already define themselves by their careers–I’m a lawyer, a doctor, a baker, a candlestick maker. Judaism, on the contrary, sees career not as a be-all and end-all, but simply as a way of putting bread on the table, enabling us to care for our families. We define ourselves as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Careers, while important, must remain secondary.

Dennis Prager, the well known Los Angeles radio personality has said that he’s never heard of a person lying on his death bed who says to his rabbi, “What a mistake I made with my life. Why didn’t I spend more time at the office?”

In a very stirring Holocaust survivor’s poem entitled Star Eternal, by the poet Ka-tzetnik 135633, the author deals with the question of “Wiedergutmacheng”–accepting reparations from the Germans for the losses. The child in the poem says:

“Mother, now they want to give me money to make up for you.
I still can’t figure out how many German marks a burnt mother comes to.”

The value of life is infinite, whether a mother’s life, a father’s life, a son’s life or a daughter’s life. Moshe was correct in setting the tribes of Reuven and Gad straight. As he says in verse 24: “B’nu la’chem a’rim l’tap’chem, ug’day’rot l’tzon’ah’chem.” First build for yourselves cities for your children, and only then build the pens for your flocks.

May you be blessed.