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As many of you know, seeking to redeem so-called irredeemable texts is a personal passion of mine. Among the irredeemable texts found in the Torah, parts of Matot-Masei are among some of the most troubling and irredeemable. The merciless slaughtering of so many Midianite men, women and children (and the sparing the virginal young females for who knows what nefarious purposes) is one of the most troubling texts in all of Torah. Some argue that Moses was responsible, and not Gd, as Moses gave the orders. Yet I wouldn't let Gd off the hook so easily, as Gd could easily have stopped Moses' over-the-top zealous vengeance. Last year at this time, I wrote about the "Over the top" attitude of Moses (and Gd.) Sadly, I wrote, things haven't changed must since those days: "Yet humankind continues to go over the top. The crusades. The Inquisition. Nazism. Mutual assured destruction. The My Lai massacre. Tiananmen Square. Seems we haven't learned the lesson yet, which is why it is good that each year we repeat these same parts of the Torah. Maybe someday we'll really listen and understand." And so many more tragedies to add to these. Ethic cleansing in so many corners of the world continues unabated.
I've attempted and failed many times to redeem this irredeemable piece of text. I haven't yet succeeded, and I am certain I won't this year. So, as I have done in past years, I'll pick a different piece of the parasha to focus on. There are many great things in Matot and Masei of which I have written. Among them are teaching making oaths, keeping promises, and building cities of refuge. And the accompanying haftarot from Jeremiah as well.
But this year I want to key on something different. It's a point the rabbis caught, and it's worth emphasizing.
The Reubenites and Gadites come to Moses to request permission, since they had many cows and sheep (though some commentators suggest it was only their perception,) to settle in the pasture lands west of the Jordan rather than go with the people into Canaan. When Moses accuses them of trying to shirk their duty to help the Israelites battle their way into Canaan, they reply that they will leave their women, children and animals behind, but all the men will go at the front of the advancing Israelite forces and will remain until Canaan has been conquered and then return to their homes west of the Jordan. They say "We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children." (Num 32:16)
Notice the order. The seem to placed greater emphasis on their sheep than on their children. Moses, in his response, agrees so long as they do as promised, and go as a vanguard with the Israelites troops into Canaan. But Moses then reverses the order, saying "Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised." (Num 32:24)
The Reubenites and Gadites seemed to have caught on, for when they answer Moses, they too, used the changed order, placing their children before their animals. "Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind ..."(Num 32:26)
How often do we make the same mistake, placing our sheep, which represent material possessions, before our own children, before other human beings? What are our values? (Sometimes we place our pets before our children too, but I don't think I'd put pets in the same category as "material possessions." Still, it makes one wonder.)
Forgive me, for this is a bit of a rant as a Jewish professional. And it may even stray a bit far from the text at hand. How many of us cheerfully spend money on trips, travel, vacations, entertainment, luxuries, electronics, PDAs, yet begrudgingly, if at all, are willing to pay to support their synagogue and provide for the religious education of our children? Too many, I'm afraid. Just as too many of us will gladly fork over for lots of cash for Lasix surgery or Botox treatments or even for a high-priced hair stylist, yet blanches and gasps when asked by a Jewish musician, performer, teacher, et al to pay even the most modest of fees for their services? Jewish teachers are woefully underpaid and our religious school programs woefully under funded. Yet the parade of Lexus, Range Rovers, Ford Explorers that pass-by and leave their child for "drop-off Judaism" continues unabated. At least these parents are making the effort to give their children a Jewish education. But they want their sheep and their children too! And it's not always clear who comes first--the "sheep" or the children.
There's a price to pay to have the nice things in life. Moses told the Reubenites and the Gadites "hey, you want the nice land, that isn't even part of what Gd is giving us? You gotta go out and do your duty for the rest of the Israelites! And you need to put your children and women before your livestock!"
It's true in our own time. Some hard work, some loss of quality family time, are often required to live on the "east side of the Jordan." Some consider the price worth it. Others don't. In either case, putting children and family before material possessions is the right thing to do. And lots of us do it. Many sacrifice a great deal to educate their children, and put them through college. So I don't want to paint too bleak a picture.
Of course, one has to wonder why the Reubenites and Gadites were so eager to forego their inheritance in the land promised to the Israelites by Gd? A land flowing with milk and honey. If the Reubenites and the Gadites truly were putting their children and families before their livestock, would they really have wanted to stay east of the Jordan simply because that appeared to be better pasture land? "Why, of course," some might say. "It enables them to be better providers for their families. That's what matters."
But the land is never truly ours. Nor can we truly know our own fates and our futures. Maybe some will choose the easy life on the east side of the Jordan. As for me, it's westward-ho, across the Jordan, into the promised land. With Gd leading the way. Which would you choose? And which one really benefits and puts the children before the sheep, your kids before some (animal) kids?
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises
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