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Matot-Massei (5770) – Priorities

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The Israelites are almost within sight of the promised land. They have waged a victorious campaign against the Midianites. We feel the tempo quicken. No longer are the Israelites in the desert. They are moving inexorably toward the Jordan, to the west of which lies their destination: the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’.

The members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, though, begin to have different thoughts. Seeing that the land through which they are travelling is ideal for raising cattle, they decide that they would like to stay there, to the east of the Jordan. Moses is angry at the suggestion:

Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land the Lord has given them?

The tribes meet his objection with a compromise formula:

Then they came up to him and said, “We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children. But we are ready to arm ourselves and go ahead of the Israelites until we have brought them to their place. Meanwhile our women and children will live in fortified cities, for protection from the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance. We will not receive any inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan, because our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan.”

We are willing, they tell Moses, to join the rest of the Israelites in the battles that lie ahead. Indeed we are willing to go on ahead, to be the advance guard, to be in the forefront of the battle. It is not that we are afraid of battle. Nor are we trying to evade our responsibilities toward our people as a whole. It is simply that we wish to raise cattle, and this land to the east of the Jordan is ideal. Warning them of the seriousness of their undertaking, Moses agrees. If they keep their word, they may settle east of the Jordan.

That is the story on the surface. But as so often in the Torah, there are subtexts as well as texts. One in particular was noticed by the sages, with their sensitivity to nuance and detail. Listen carefully to what the Reubenites and Gadites said:

Then they came up to him and said, “We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children.”
Moses replies:
“Build cities for your children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”

The ordering of the nouns is crucial. The men of Reuben and Gad put property before people: they speak of their flocks first, their women and children second. Moses reverses the order, putting special emphasis on the children. As Rashi notes:

They paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters, because they mentioned their cattle before the children. Moses said to them: ‘Not so. Make the main thing primary and the subordinate thing secondary. First build cities for your children, and only then, folds for your flocks.’

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22: 9) makes the same point through a dazzling interpretation of the line in Ecclesiastes:

The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left. (Ecclesiastes 10:2)

The midrash identifies ‘right’ with Torah and life: “He brought the fire of a religion to them from his right hand (Deut. 33:2). ‘Left’ refers to worldly goods:

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour. (Proverbs 3: 16)

The men of Reuben and Gad put ‘riches and honour’ before faith and posterity. Moses hints to them that their priorities are wrong. The midrash continues:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: “Seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in it.”

One of the most consistent patterns of Jewish history is the way communities through the ages put children and their education first. Already in the first century Josephus was able to write: “The result of our thorough education in our laws, from the very dawn of intelligence, is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” In twelfth century France a Christian scholar noted: “A Jew, however poor, if he has ten sons, will put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of G-d’s law – and not only his sons but his daughters too.”

In 1432, at the height of Christian persecution of Jews in Spain, a synod was convened at Valladolid to institute a system of taxation to fund Jewish education for all. In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the first thing Jewish communities in Europe did to re-establish Jewish life was to re-organise the educational system. In their classic study of the shtetl, the small townships of Eastern Europe, Zborowski and Herzog write this about the typical Jewish family:

The most important item in the family budget is the tuition fee that must be paid each term to the teacher of the younger boys’ school. Parents will bend in the sky to educate their son. The mother, who has charge of household accounts, will cut the family food costs to the limit if necessary, in order to pay for her sons schooling. If the worst comes to the worst, she will pawn her cherished pearls in order to pay for the school term. The boy must study, the boy must become a good Jew – for her the two are synonymous.

In 1849, when Samson Raphael Hirsch became rabbi in Frankfurt, he insisted that the community create a school before building a synagogue. After the Holocaust, the few surviving yeshivah heads and Hassidic leaders concentrated on encouraging their followers to have children and build schools.

It is hard to think of any other religion or civilization that is as child-centred as Judaism, nor any that has predicated its very existence on putting their education first. There have been Jewish communities in the past that were affluent and built magnificent synagogues – Alexandria in the first centuries of the Common Era is an example. Yet because they did not put children first, they contributed little to the Jewish story. They flourished briefly, then disappeared.

Moses’ implied rebuke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad is not a minor detail but a fundamental statement about Jewish priorities. Property is secondary, children primary.

Civilizations that value the young, stay young. Those that invest in the future, have a future. It is not what we own that gives us a share in eternity, but those to whom we give birth and the effort we make to ensure that they carry our belief and way of life into the next generation.