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This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, conveys a profound message about the ways in which we struggle to balance material and spiritual aspirations. With the Jewish people poised on the east bank of the Jordan River in what is now modern-day Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a strange request of Moses. They ask his allowance to settle where they are rather than receiving their portion in the Land of Israel.
In describing the event, the Torah notes the two tribes’ abundant livestock and records their query as follows: “Enclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children (Numbers 32:16).”
Moses is disturbed by this request and sharply rebukes them. He demands that the men of Reuben and Gad fight alongside their brethren in conquest of Israel, and then continues in pointed reversal of their original statement of intention: “So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep.”
Many commentators contrast the seemingly problematic request of the leaders of Reuben and Gad with Moses’ incisive response. The great Torah commentator Rashi cites the Midrash that states, “They were concerned for their property more than (they were) for their sons and daughters, for they put (mention) of their livestock ahead of their children. Moses said to them: This is not right! Make that which is essential essential, and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children, and afterward, enclosures for your sheep.” Their fundamental error, says the Midrash, was in allowing secondary values to trump primary ones.
Reuben and Gad found themselves caught in a web of conflicting values. On the one hand they saw in Jordan marvelous pasture land, holding the promise of material bounty and a comfortable life. On the other hand God had promised them a portion in Israel, where they could truly connect to the holiness of the land and their people.