Prioritzing Priorities

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Bnei Yisroel is on the cusp on entering the Promised Land where each tribe will receive the portion of land allotted to it by Hashem. The tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe with a request. Having many flocks of sheep, they request land on this side of the Jordan River. "Pens for the flock shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children." They follow up with, "We shall arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of Bnei Yisroel until we shall have brought them to their place." At this point, Moshe acquiesces to their request, but in responding, he changes the order of the conditions. Showing different priorities, Moshe replies, "Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flocks..."

This dialogue does more than discuss practical considerations. It reflects deep thought, more spiritual than practical considerations, both on the part of the two tribes and of Moshe Rabbenu. It is these messages that we hope to explore and from which we hope to derive valuable lessons.

On the simplest level, we can say that Reuven and Gad valued their property above their children. While our commentators begin with that thought, there are many layers of meaning and intentions behind this simplistic understanding. Before we begin that discussion, we should note that the willingness of these tribes to relinquish their hold on Eretz Yisroel proper came back generations later when they were the first tribes to be exiled by the Assyrians.

We may reason that the order of the request was only a minor slip of the tongue. Why should it have such severe consequences? Yet, slips of the tongue often reveal much more than the speaker intended. [Just ask Freud. CKS] We must investigate whether this was really an error, or was it an intentional prioritizing having nothing to do with wealth. Further, When Moshe gives his final blessings to the tribes before he dies, he seems to validate the choice of settling the land East of the Jordan River. To Gad, Moshe says, "Behold is He Who broadens Gad['s boundary]... He came to the head of the nation [to help capture the land for the other tribes]."

Mizkeinim Esbonan cites Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm to explain the motivation of Reuven and Gad. Knowing that Moshe would die, would not enter Eretz Yisroel, and would be buried in this area, Reuven and Gad chose to remain near their teacher, that his teachings should continue to guide them.

However, although their motivation may have been pure, it was misguided. There was a very fine line between this pure motivation and the concern for their flocks. This kind of slip of the tongue is what children observe and pick up on. What appears to be just a thoughtless comment can grow in our children's minds and skew their priorities, being compounded through the generations. Are we sacrificing commitment to family and to Hashem for the sake of higher earnings, often to provide extravagant luxuries beyond general comfort?

Rav Dessler takes a different perspective on the request of Reuven and Gad. Rav Dessler begins by explaining that each tribe, and indeed each person's neshamah is comprised of his personal mission and all of the talents and possessions he has been gifted with to accomplish that mission. With this idea, we can attribute these tribes' motivation to a desire to serve Hashem with all that Hashem had gifted them. Realizing that they had so many flocks, they hesitated to cross the Jordan where their sheep might graze on the farmland of others. On the other hand, this land was open grazing land, perfect for raising the sheep they could then use in Hashem's service without confronting the possibility of overriding the property of others.

What, then, was their mistake? Rav Dessler suggests that they were too hasty in their request. They should have waited with their request until all the land was being distributed. Their haste indicated that their spiritual motive was tinged with some financial concerns. Their emphasis showed concern for the temporary, physical world instead of with the eternal, spiritual world. 

There are gradations of emphasis even in important things. Certainly, writes Rabbi Nevenzahl, raising livestock to be part of service to Hashem is important, but raising children to serve Hashem is so much more important. As Rabbi Reiss points out, Hashem notices the smallest hints and innuendos in a person's speech. Looking at the sheep instead of at the future owners of the sheep skewed their priorities. Therefore, they neglected to realize that the spirituality of Eretz Yisroel would be a greater influence on their children than the perfect grazing land for the sheep. Where we raise our children has a tremendous impact on their future character and Torah observance. A Jew cannot live without sanctity in his life.

We try to act l'shem shamayim/for the glory of Heaven. However, notes Rabbi Nevenzahl citing the Kotzker Rebbe, even the mitzvoth we do for Hashem's glory should be totally for the sake of Heaven and not be tainted with ego or irrelevant motives. For example, do we spend so much money on building the beautiful shul or yeshiva structure that we have no money left to buy sefarim or to hire Rebbeim to teach Torah? [My son, a sofer, gifted me with two beautiful 15cm mezuzah scrolls. When I wanted to buy beautiful cases for them, at least for my front door, he cautioned me not to spend more money on the case than on the scrolls. He had encased them in perfectly waterproof Lucite, keeping the parchment safe while highlighting the importance of the scrolls themselves. CKS] Beautifying the mitzvah should not take precedence over the actual performance of the mitzvah.

Rabbi Zaidel Epstein notes that a "slip of the tongue" is usually very revealing, for a spontaneous pronouncement is generally indicative of what you are really focused on subconsciously. The purpose of leaving Mitzrayim was not to raise animals to serve Hashem, but to raise children to serve Hashem. The spontaneous reversal in words indicated the true priorities in their minds.

Rabbi Epstein cites an example from the wisdom of Shlomo Hamelech. When the two women who had recently given birth came to him, one of the babies had died while one had survived. Shlomo Hamelech was asked to determine who the actual mother of the living baby was. One mother started with, "... The son of this woman died at night...," while the second woman began with, "No, my son is the live son and your is the dead son..." It was the second woman who prioritized her son as living who was the actual mother of the live infant.

Judaism is not a religion of asceticism, where we renounce enjoying this world, writes Rabbi Frand. However, as long as our goal is to serve Hashem, we may use and enjoy all the gifts of this world as well. This is not the mindset of Esau. Esau believed in enjoying all the physical aspects of this world without thought of the higher purpose of physical objects. Possessions and pleasure are acceptable, but must not become the focus of one's life. Each Israelite father of a first born son is asked at the pinyon haven/redemption of the firstborn, "What do you want more, to give me your firstborn son, or to redeem him for five coins?" No father has ever said, "Keep my son; I'll take the money." Yet, how many parents spend so much time at work that they have no time or energy left for their children? Unless they are working for basic necessities, they are deluding themselves into thinking that they are working to benefit their children, when the children are more in need of their parents' attention than things money can buy. And when you have extra money, are you buying beautiful tefillin for your son, investing in a Torah tutor, or is a scheduled vacation a more important way to spend the money? Children pick up on our priorities even when we ourselves may be unaware of them for, of course, everything we do is for the children.

Rabbi Munk brings an allegorical interpretation to the request of Reuven and Gad. Our passage begins with umikneh rav/and an abundance of livestock did Reuven and Gad have. But mikneh rav can also be translated as "acquiring a teacher." Reuven and Gad would have in their territory the mortal remains of their teacher, Moshe Rabbenu. They wished to remain close to him.

Rabbi Goldvich explains their reasoning. Moshe Rabbenu represented the completely spiritual life Bnei Yisroel lived in the desert. Hashem provided for all their physical needs, and they were left with the ability to pursue Torah study all day. They lived a total kollel life. When Bnei Yisroel would enter Eretz Yisroel, the Divine provision of all their needs would cease, and they would need to spend their time working to support themselves. Reuven and Gad wanted to remain in the spiritual bubble of the desert, spending their time learning Torah, as they did with their Rav Moshe.

Although this was praiseworthy, they neglected to calculate what they would be giving up—being surrounded with the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel, and closeness with the rest of Bnei Yisroel. The problem was not in their desire, but in substituting their desire for Hashem's will without asking what Hashem would have wanted.

In Moda Labinah, Rabbi Rothberg provides yet a different positive motivation for their request. According to Rabbi Rothberg, they wanted to expand the territory, and thus the sanctity, of Eretz Yisroel. They reasoned that Hashem gave them so much livestock specifically to fulfill the mission of expanding the sacred territory. Moshe was initially skeptical of their motivation, but when they proposed to go in the forefront of their brothers' wars of acquisition, Moshe agreed to their request. They mentioned the sheep first to highlight their mindset; they wanted to elevate the profane to the sacred, to elevate the livestock to the service of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Now Moshe understood their motivation. Nevertheless, he admonished them never to put the sheep before the children.

Rabbi Reiss now explains why specifically these two tribes were the ones who hoped to transform the mundane to the sacred. Reuven, who was the first to do teshuvah, to transform a mistake, was ideally suited to transform the profane lands to the sacred. Gad, as the strong one, would be the ideal partner in this endeavor. As Ben Zoma says, "Who is strong? He who reins in his desire." Nevertheless, while your motivation is praiseworthy, your children are holier than the land. The children must always be primary.

Rabbi Sholom Gold zt"l lived much of his life in the symbolic ever hayarden/the other side of the ocean. He set down roots in West Hempstead that grew and flourished, a legacy continued with Rabbi Yehudah Kelemer zt"l. Those roots spread and expanded, and today the West Hempstead community is among the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities outside Eretz Yisroel. But he never lost sight of Eretz Yisroel. After he made aliyah, he continued to establish and spread Torah programs within the Land he embraced as his, and every Jew's, birthright.

During this three week period in our calendar, it is important to retain our focus on the children. We must probe the motivations behind our actions, for our children are more perceptive than we realize. If we prioritize our lives to do what Hashem wants of us, our children will learn and emulate us. Then we will expand the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel, as all the world will be covered with the knowledge of Hashem as waters cover the sea.