Of Sheep and Shepherds


16 min read


Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

The children of Reuben and the children of Gad had abundant livestock, very great. They saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead and behold! the place was a place for livestock. The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and said to Moses, to Elazar the Kohen, and to the leaders of the assembly saying, "Atarot and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Sebom, and Nebo, and Beon -- the land that God smote before the assembly of Israel -- is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock." They said, "If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan." (Numbers 32:1-5)

This request was ultimately granted. But in the process of the negotiations only one issue was discussed: the obligation of these tribes to cross the River Jordan and actively participate in the conquest of Israel as a condition for awarding them lands known as Trans-Jordan.

The issue of whether they should permanently settle in what was, after all, not the Holy Land in the first place was never discussed. Moses and the elders readily agreed to this without even bothering to consult God.

But wasn't the entire point of the Exodus to settle in the Promised Land? Would it have been just as acceptable if these two tribes had opted to return to Egypt after assisting in the conquest? What happened to the commandment of settling in Israel? How could people on the spiritual level of the desert generation decide to voluntarily trade spiritual potential for livestock? And how could Moses and the elders support such a plan outright, without making the slightest attempt to dissuade them from such apparent madness, or at the very least consult with God before reaching agreement? Why do we not find the slightest degree of criticism about this transaction in the Torah?

Rabbi Dessler discusses this issue quite extensively and we shall attempt to present his thesis and see how the theory he develops applies to us today.


Everyone who is called by My Name and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have fashioned, even perfected. (Isaiah 43:7)

Isaiah reveals to us that everything in the universe only exists by virtue of the fact that it can be used as a vehicle for sanctifying God's Name. When man, through the power of his free will, uses an item -- be it land, food, plant, mineral, etc. -- to increase his general awareness of God, this justifies and validates the item's creation. In this way God's presence in the world is revealed.

All things that exist derive energy from the holy spark of potential revelation that they contain.

In the language of Kabbalists, this potential for revelation in all created things is referred to as the "holy spark." Thus all things that exist derive energy for their existence from the holy spark of potential revelation that they contain. When man employs the power of his intelligence to direct his actions to uncover the concealed Divinity in created objects, this holy spark is actualized.

In the case of evil, the holy spark is regarded as trapped. When a free will decision is made to resist the evil in a temptation situation, the holy spark is regarded as released and freed. Having released the holy spark, the evil no longer contains the energy for continued existence. The evil object becomes an empty husk and sanctifies God's Name by passing out of existence.

In the imagery of Kabbalah, the holy spark released by the evil is collected in the soul of the person who released it by his free will decision.

Nachmanides explains that the meaning of the word tov, "good," in the Book of Genesis is really "everlasting." In its proper container, a holy spark never dies and therefore maintains its host in existence through all eternity.

These holy sparks are really points of revelation of the Divine light that constantly emanates from God Himself. Connection to this light is life itself.


Each Jew is assigned a particular number of holy sparks to collect from the existing environment that surrounds him. The assignment is determined by the nature of his spiritual power, or his neshama. The number of holy sparks that are assigned exactly correspond to the number of sparks his neshama was designed to contain. By succeeding in the task of collecting his assigned sparks, a person brings his neshama to permanent enduring life. When his neshama is alive so is the rest of him, because by definition the container of the holy spark cannot die.

The earthly talents, powers and means that are placed at each person's disposal are assigned to him in terms of the requirements of his particular task of collection. The successful accomplishment of his assigned task therefore, endows his gifts with eternal permanence, as all these gifts were needed to capture the holy sparks.

Some people never collect the holy sparks that were placed in the universe specifically for them.

Some people fail to accomplish this task and never collect the holy sparks that were placed in the universe specifically for them. This is usually because they have chosen to surrender to the evil inclination.

Such a failure condemns the uncollected holy sparks to eternal confinement within the evil. Rather than face eternal bondage the holy sparks prefer to extinguish and die. When this happens the neshama that was assigned to release the spark lacks the rationale for continued existence and it too dies.

But how does all this Kabbalistic lore apply to the story of Gad and Reuben or explain their decision to remain in Trans-Jordan? The next step is to understand and appreciate the proper arrangement of priorities.


The desert generation was called the "generation of the wise." The Hebrew word for "wise" employed in this expression is deah, a word related to daat.

There are three different words in Hebrew which mean wisdom: chachmah, binah and daat. Chachmah stands for information, the basis of all knowledge and wisdom. Binah is the wisdom to analyze and apply information properly, and daat is the wisdom to arrive at the correct assessment of the significance of the information.

Thus for example, Einstein discovered that matter is merely a form of energy. In so doing, he found out information, a function of chachmah. Once this information was properly understood, it became possible to extract energy from atoms either through hydrogen bombs or electricity. That action involved binah. Then a decision had to be made about what amount of human energy and resources should be allocated to the exploitation of this information. And that decision involved daat. The chachmah and binah of the theory of relativity are free of problems and beyond dispute, it is the daat associated with Einstein's discovery that is heavily debated to the present day.

The desert generation was called the generation of deah, because the entire focus of the lives of its members was on their connection to God. Although we find many failures in the desert generation that are recorded and discussed in the Torah, the sin of the improper allocation of time and resources is not one of them. It was not till after the Jewish people left the desert and entered Israel that this sin is mentioned, in the Book of Joshua at the siege of Jericho:

It happened when Joshua was in Jericho that he raised his eyes and behold! a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, Joshua went toward him and said to him, "Are you with us or with our enemies?" He said, "No, for I am the commander of God's legion; now I have come." (Joshua 5:13-14)

Explains the Talmud:

The angel had his sword out because he was there to chastise Joshua. He appeared towards morning. His message was that Israel should have brought the evening tamid sacrifice the previous afternoon, as when the night approaches, the active warfare associated with the siege of Jericho comes to a halt. There is no immediate danger to human life that could justifiably take precedence over the fulfillment of commandments and therefore, time should have been allocated to bring the evening sacrifice; the night should have been devoted to Torah study for the same reason. Joshua asked him which transgression had prompted his appearance? And the answer of the angel now I have come, indicates that his appearance was prompted by the unnecessary taking of time away from Torah study. The Talmud elicits the rule that the study of Torah takes precedence over the bringing of sacrifices from the priorities of the angel. (Megilah 3a)

The unnecessary focus on material things is the essence of misallocation of one's time, attention and resources. The reason we refer to the desert generation as the generation of deah is because they could never be faulted for their order of priorities. They always allocated their energy and resources properly. They attained the level of human perfection in the area of daat.


The reason Moses and the elders so readily accepted Reuben and Gad's decision to remain in Trans-Jordan was their clear perception that this decision did not represent a lack of a proper sense of priorities, and did not arise from a lack of daat. The explanation: these tribes perceived that shepherding was their God given skill, and therefore their task of sanctifying God's Name was associated with their sheep. They were supposed to collect their holy sparks by tending their sheep. As such, they did not belong in the Holy Land where it is forbidden to raise sheep. (Baba Kama 79b)

In our minds tending sheep is associated with poverty and simplicity, but this was not the case in the ancient world.

Rabbi Yochanan taught: "Anyone who wants to get rich should engage in the raising of sheep." Rabbi Chisda added: "Why are flocks of sheep referred to by the Torah as ashteroth zonecho? (Deut 7:13) Because sheep enrich their owners." [This interpretation comes from associating the word ashtoroth meaning "flocks," with ashiruth meaning "wealth" in Hebrew.](Talmud, Chulin 84a)

The evil inclination resides in wealth in the form of theft. The spiritual problem associated with wealth -- the holy spark of revelation it contains -- is associated with honesty. Wealth that is totally untainted by avarice and is earned through total honesty sanctifies the God's Name.

The very first problem in Abraham's family arose over the issue of theft and sheep:

And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock, and the Canaanite and the Perrizite were then dwelling in the land. (Genesis 13:7)

Rashi explains, in the name of the Midrash that Abraham's herdsmen did not allow their sheep to graze on private property whereas Lot's herdsmen did. Abraham's herdsmen rebuked them for this practice and accused them of theft. Lot's herdsmen defended their practice on the grounds that God had awarded the land to Abraham and Lot was his only heir (which was true at the time). But the Torah explains that although God had made the promise to give Abraham the land, the gift had not yet been executed and the Canaanites were still living there.


Jacob's wealth was also based on sheep. Jacob's impassioned speech of defense against Laban's accusation of theft (Genesis 31:38-42) is another example of this connection between theft and sheep.

This is how Maimonides presents the essence of Jacob's response:

Just as the employer is enjoined from stealing or holding back the wages of his employee, the employee is enjoined from stealing his labor from his employer. That is to say, to take off a few minutes here and waste a few minutes there until the entire day is dishonestly wasted. He is obligated to be productive with his time as you can see from the fact that the rabbis forbade the laborer to recite the fourth blessing of "bentching" since they felt it would take too much time away from his work.

Jacob's wealth was composed of the holy sparks collected by his faithfulness and honesty.

Thus the laborer is obligated to work to his maximum capacity as Jacob testified about himself, Now you have known that it was with all my might that I served your father. (Genesis 31:6) That is the reason that he earned a reward even in this world, as it is written, the man became exceedingly prosperous (ibid 30:43) (See Laws of Rentals, 13:7.) Jacob's wealth was composed of the holy sparks collected by his faithfulness and honesty towards his employer Laban.

Thus sheep, the source of great wealth in the ancient world, are also symbols of theft. The Talmud (Baba Kama 80a) refers to a sheep as an armed robber. Its weapons are its teeth and its hunger coupled with a built-in instinct to roam. The reason it was forbidden to raise sheep (as well as goats) in Israel was precisely because of the difficulty in restraining the flocks from grazing on private land.

The children of Gad and the children of Reuben, who were human repositories of the skill of shepherding, were also the ones who were entrusted with rescuing and collecting the holy sparks in sheep by successfully resisting and defeating the evil inclination of theft.

If they could grow wealthy from the sheep they raised and remain totally untainted by theft, they could collect and release this holy spark. Their wealth would sanctify God's Name. If they decided to enter Israel, this couldn't be accomplished. They would have to get rid of their sheep first, because of the prohibition against raising sheep in the Holy Land.

On the other hand, the Trans-Jordan was ideal territory for livestock. Just by looking at it, you could safely conclude that it was in this part of the creation that God placed this particular holy spark of attaining theft-free wealth. As these tribes were the ones who were given the ability to collect this spark and ignite it, they understood that this was the land that God intended for them. Moses and the elders were in total agreement, and that is why we find no hint of criticism of their decision.


The word daat has another connotation in Hebrew. When Adam cohabited with Eve the Torah describes the act with the word daat. (Genesis 4:1) The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is called the tree of daat. (Genesis 2:9)

The perception of priorities leads directly to the formation of connections. A person pours his life force, his talents, his energy, and resources into the areas he perceives as the most crucial to his survival and well being. He is then connected to these areas by a bond that is equal in strength to his life force.

The first request we make in the Shmoneh Esreh prayer begins "You graciously extend daat to man." Explains the Maharal: the connection with God is our most basic human need as Jews; this connection is life itself, as it is written, you who are connected to the Lord your God are totally alive today (Deut. 4:4). Such a connection must begin with God rather than with us. Human intelligence cannot generate the wisdom to establish this connection to God; the initial establishment of the connection has to come from God's grace.

The purpose of living in the Holy Land is to be able to connect to God more easily.

This connection with God that is at the top of our prayers is actualized through the holy sparks we collect. This we do by successfully completing our assigned tasks according to the rules of God's Torah (as Rabbi Dessler explained). As long as our tasks remain our top priority in all our activities, and provided we make no mistakes, we cannot fail to attain our potential level of daat. But as daat is also our connection to God, such a life automatically maximizes our potential connection to Him as well.

The purpose of living in the Holy Land is to be able to connect to God more easily and with greater strength than we could attain living on the unhallowed soil of the rest of the world. The Mishna in Kelim (1:6) states: "There are ten levels of holiness on earth; the land of Israel is holier than all other countries."

For someone who is living at the maximum level of daat, living in Israel could produce no possible improvement. The children of Gad and Reuben were making no mistake. Moses and the elders who saw everything clearly in the bright light of prophetic vision approved their decision. They were maximizing their potential for daat by receiving their inheritance in Trans-Jordan.

In the world of today, the decision to remain in other countries rather than move to the land of Israel is a voluntary one. Whoever chooses to remain in the lands of exile because he feels that he can do a better job of collecting his holy sparks there is committing no fault.

But whoever chooses to voluntarily remain there because his standard of living is a high priority is going against the daat of the Torah and can be held liable for his sin.

Many Jewish people are in the position of being able to make it in Israel but on a much lower standard of living, and therefore refrain from taking the step of aliyah. If a correct system of priorities would place a person in Israel, where it is easier to form a more powerful connection with God even in the periods of exile such as we are currently experiencing, then that person is clearly losing out by staying put. His assigned holy sparks are in Israel. He will look for them in vain in the lands of exile where he chooses to remain.

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