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Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Reuben and Gad and the power of distraction.

In this week's Parsha, the Jewish people are in final preparations for entering the Land of Israel. Two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad have been blessed with such an abundance of flocks and herds, that they anticipate not having enough grazing land in Israel. So they propose the following: Instead of taking our regular portion of land within Israel proper, we'll instead stay here on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.

Moses' reaction to this request? He lambastes them! Why? Moses wasn't upset that they were choosing to stay outside Israel ― actually they were helping to gather sparks of kabbalistic holiness from around the world. Rather, Moses was upset because when making their request, Reuven and Gad blatantly disregard the needs of their children ― and mention their cattle only. (Numbers 32:4)

The leaders of Reuven and Gad get the hint. Somewhat. In 32:16, they approach Moses again and restate their request. This time they mention their children ― but only after first speaking of their cattle. Moses again is not happy at their lack of priority for putting business ahead of family.

Finally, they seem get the idea. In 32:26, they put everything in the proper order ― family first, business second.


We've all met people who are working overtime to "give their kids something extra" ― while ruining that very relationship by not spending enough time with the kids!

Imagine the case of Mr. Schwartz, an investment banker in a major Wall Street financial firm. He spends most of his days trying to reach his lifelong goal of earning $10 million. He and his wife have three children.

One day, a wealthy philanthropist named Mr. Cohen, who unfortunately has no children, decides to make Schwartz a very generous offer. Cohen says, "You're spending your whole life to make $10 million dollars, right? But your kids are growing up without a father. You're off to work before they get up, and home long after they've gone to sleep. On weekends, you're at the club entertaining business clients. So I'll give you the biggest shortcut of your financial career. I'm willing to offer you $10 million dollars in exchange for the rights to adopt one of your children. He will have the best of everything. The only condition is that you will never be able to see or hear from him again."

What does Schwartz say? Ten million dollars certainly gets his attention! But even he realizes that there are things in life you can't put a price tag on. Schwartz stares Cohen right between the eyes and announces: "No deal."

Ten million dollars. "Money can't buy you love." (Somebody should write a song about that.)

Family Vacation

Now imagine the scene. Schwartz has just shut the door on a cool 10 million. He rushes home where his kids are playing on the living room floor. What do you think he does when he sees them?

With tears in his eyes, he runs over and gives them each a big hug and kiss. "You darling creatures are worth more than all the money in the universe!"

Then he stops and realizes: "Where have I been all their lives? I have something at home that's worth more to me than all the money in the world ― and I'm working so hard I barely spend one hour a week with them!"

So what does Schwartz do? He calls the office, announces he's taking a two-week vacation, and sends the maids, nannies and babysitters away. He's going to spend two blissful weeks with his kids.

After struggling for an hour to get the stroller open, Schwartz finally makes it to the park. He and the kids are having a grand time. But then comes dinner, bath and story time. After enduring food fights, floods in the bathtub and endless readings of "Babar Goes to the Circus," Schwartz flops down on the couch, turns to his wife and says, "Perhaps I was a bit hasty about that vacation. You know I have a lot of responsibilities at work..."

Schwartz is making a big mistake. More than presents, children need your presence.

Your Money Or Your Life

The Torah tells us to recite the "Shema" prayer twice each day. It says: "And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources."

Typically the Torah presents a series as a progression from easiest to hardest: Love God emotionally ("heart"), and even be willing to give up your life if necessary ("soul"), and even be willing to spend your money, too!

Yet if this is a progression, are there really people who consider money more important than life itself?!

And the answer is yes. The Talmud speaks about someone who walks across a thorny field, and picks up his pants in order to avoid getting them ripped. Of course, the person's legs get all cut up and scratched ― but at least the pants are saved!

One time I had to stay overnight in Nevada, where gambling is legal and every hotel has a casino. I went up to my hotel room and wanted to open the window to get some fresh air. But the window wouldn't open more than a crack. I thought it was stuck. So I pushed harder and harder. Finally I asked: "What is the problem with this window?"

I was told that the windows in this hotel are specially designed not to open more than a crack. This way, people who have lost money gambling won't be tempted to jump out the window and kill themselves.


The Lesson is Clear

In our Parsha, after travelling through the desert for 40 years and enduring countless trials and tribulations, the Jewish people are now standing across the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. It is one of the defining moments in all of Jewish history.

But Reuven and Gad say they'd rather take good grazing land than enter Israel!

They had come so far, but they only went halfway. They were distracted by material goals when it really counted.

The Talmud says that when Reuven and Gad later saw the rich life in the Land of Israel, they regretted their decision. But the story has an even sadder ending: When Assyrian King Sanchereb exiled the Jewish people during the time of the First Temple, the first tribes to be conquered and sent away were, you guessed it, Reuven and Gad.

It happens to all of us from time to time. Objectively, we can know our priorities. But sometimes we get distracted.

May we have the strength and clarity to connect our heart to our mind ― and to act upon that which we intellectually know to be right.


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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