Mattos-Massei: Keeping our Priorities Straight

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As the Jewish people are on the cusp of entering the land of Israel at long last, the tribes of Ruvein, Gad, and half of Menasseh have a rather surprising request: They approach Moshe, and note that they have a lot of cattle, and where they currently were encamped, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, happened to be a great place for cattle. Perhaps it might make sense, therefore, for them to setup shop and settle there, and not to settle on the Western side of the Jordan , like everyone else.

Needless to say, Moshe was not too impressed with this request. He asks them, “Are your brothers going to go out to war, while you stay and settle here?” He then tells them that they will cause the rest of the Jewish people to lose morale, much like the spies of years prior caused the Jewish people to lose morale after their reconnaissance mission.

To this, they respond, “We will build barns for our flocks and cities for our children,” and will go fight with their brethren, and not return until each and everyone of them is settled in their portion. Moshe seems to think that this is a reasonable enough request, and he tells them to, “Build cities for your children and barns for your flocks, but do what you promised.”

At first glance, this is civil exchange, with a reasonable compromise. Yet, as Rabbi Frand points out, the Midrash indicates that ultimately, because the tribes of Ruvein, Gad and half of Menasseh were happy to settle outside of the land of Israel, they were–albeit many years later– the first ones to be sent into exile. The Midrash critiques their request.

The question is, why? What was so wrong about their request, especially given the fact that Moshe acquiesced, and that they pledged to serve their time and support their brethren in their military efforts? Where did they go wrong? And, what does this have to do with this time of year, as we sit here in Av, during the Nine Days of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple?

Says the Midrash, their downfall was in their priorities: “They made the primary thing secondary, and the secondary thing they made primary, in that they loved their possession more than their children, as they said to Moses, “Let us build barns for our flocks, (before) they said, “Let us build cities for our children.” In their request to Moshe, they got the order backwards– they first asked to take care of their material possession, and only then mentioned taking care of their own flesh and blood–their children.

Similarly, the Talmud Bavli famously states in Tractate Yoma that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. The Talmud Yerushalmi, however, adds one important detail: The Temple was destroyed because people loved their possessions so much, and hated each other for no reason. The Yerushalmi seems to add that specifically this love of the material led to this devastating, destructive hatred.

Practically I believe their are two relevant lessons to our lives: The first lesson is that we need to assess our priorities– to make sure that the most important things in our lives are treated with the utmost importance, and that the secondary things in our lives, remain secondary. We must take great caution against getting them mixed up. This, frankly, is very difficult in the year 2021, when knowing how to create a healthy work-life balance is a large quagmire. In the olden days, we would leave work at our office, when we left at 5:00 PM. Our massive computer remained there, peacefully awaiting our arrival the next morning. We would be left blissfully to tend to our own lives. But today, we bring work home with us in our pockets, or we wear it on our watches.

There are social expectations that when you send me a text or an email, I need to stop whatever I am doing, and respond to you within the hour. Ironically, no one ever agreed to these terms of this social contract– we were all kind of just forced into it, whether we like it or not. But we need to ask ourselves, when we are home with our families or friends, who should get the priority? Our precious family or friends, or random people who manage to capture our attention?

I recall as a young lad when I played baseball growing up. After hitting an RBI double, I would look to the sideline or stands, and see my Pops standing up, clapping for my accomplishment. That felt amazing. Fast forward 23 years– I am now in the bleachers watching my kid’s game. My phone is in my pocket, buzzing away. The urge to grab it and digest what it is trying to tell me is palpable. But if I grab it when my son makes a great hit, or a great play in the field, how destructive will that be, as he looks in the stands, to see that I missed his accomplishment? “Clearly, Dad’s phone is more important than I am,” he will think. This thought truly terrifies me.

We need to learn to turn it off– so that we can make that which is primary primary, and that which is secondary can remain secondary.

The second lesson from these powerful midrashim and the Talmud Yerushalmi, is that the sharp focus on the material, inevitably breeds jealousy, and its not too distant cousin, hatred. This, says the Yerushalmi, is why we don’t have a Temple today.

There is an implied race that we have with our fellow neighbors and community members on the acquisition of stuff. This person just bought a new house in a nicer neighborhood, so I ought to as well. So-and-So just renovated his house, so I need to as well. They just got the new car, so it probably is time for me to upgrade as well. We have this unspoken constant competition with each other on the acquisition of material goods–and it needs to stop.

Hopefully we can learn from the mistake of Ruvein, Gad, and half of Menashe and avoid the intense temptation of an over-emphasis on the material. We need to have our priorities crystal clear– it is not our property that is of primary importance, but our children, our relationships with our friends and family, and our relationship with the Almighty.

By focusing on wha truly matters–taking care of each other first and foremost–hopefully next week we will not be sitting on the floor in mourning, but rejoicing in Yerushalayim at our rebuilt Beis Hamikdash, B’mheira b’yameinu.

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