“Setting Our Priorities Straight
(updated and revised from Parashiot Matot-Masei 5761-2001)

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 Reuben and Gad, were successful herdsmen with large numbers of sheep and cattle. The Torah reports that the tribal leaders of Reuben 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 locations for their cattle. The leaders of Gad and Reuben, (later joined by half of Menashe), approached Moses and Elazar, the high priest, and the princes of the 12 tribes, and asked for permission to settle in that portion of the land. Moses was distressed by the request, thinking that Reuben and Gad were trying to shirk their obligations to help in the battles to capture the land of Canaan.

In Numbers 32:6, Moses excoriates the tribes of Reuben and Gad saying: ? הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה,  “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you remain here?” Moses further accuses the tribes of Reuben 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 Reuben and Gad say, Numbers 32:16: גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה, וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ, “We will build pens for our livestock and cities for our small children. Furthermore, they promise to send troops to join the other tribes of Israel, until the battle for the land is complete. They vow not to return to their homes until all the people of Israel are settled on their patrimony.

Moses is delighted by their forthcomingness, and invites Reuben and Gad to serve in the vanguard of the Israeli army that will drive the Canaanite inhabitants out of the land.

Moses however, makes a subtle correction to their original response. In Numbers 32:24, Moses says to the tribes of Reuben and Gad: בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם, Yes, do whatever you must, but first build cities for yourselves and for your small children, and then erect pens for your flocks. Rashi on Numbers 32:16, citing the Midrash Tanchuma , says that Moses firmly 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 property (their sheep) than they were for their children. Moses strongly asserts that care for the children must be their first concern and priority.

In the ritual of the Pidyon Haben, the Redemption of the First-born son, the Cohen asks the child’s father, “Do you prefer to give me your first born, the first born of his mother, or would you rather redeem him for the five shekels required by the Torah?” In effect, the Cohen asks the parent, do you want your child or your money? Do you intend to put career ahead of family, or will you set your life’s primary focus to be your children and your family?

In our era of overwhelming materialism, most people already define themselves by their careers–I’m a lawyer, a doctor, a baker, a candlestick maker. Judaism, to the contrary, sees career not as an end, but as a means of putting bread on the table, enabling parents to properly care for their families. The Torah encourages Jews to define themselves 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, say 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 written by the poet Ka-tzetnik 135633, the author deals with the question of “Wiedergutmacheng”–accepting reparations from the Germans to compensate 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. Moses was correct in setting the priorities of the tribes of Reuben and Gad straight. As he says in Numbers 32:24: בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם, “First build for yourselves cities for your children, and only then build the pens for your flocks.”

May you be blessed.