Parshat Mattot-Masei, Numbers 30:2-36:13
In this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’asei, it seems that our biblical ancestors have questionable priorities. As plans get underway for the eventual move across the river into Canaan, representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses. They have prospered on the east side of the Jordan and would like to remain there. They promise to help Israel in the conquest of the Promised Land, but then plan to return and settle on the other side of the Jordan. “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children,” they tell Moses.
At first glance their request does not seem unusual for the reasons given above. In biblical times, possessions were of the utmost importance. One spent much time and energy thinking about food, shelter, herds and flocks, and how to obtain and sustain those things.
But a second look causes us to ask: Do the tribes of Reuben and Gad really put their sheep before their children? Moses notices too and subtly redirects them by reordering their priorities. He responds, “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flock.” Moses recognizes that commerce is vital, that thinking about one’s business is important; but he places family at the top of the list, before business. His words remind the tribes that their priorities are not ordered correctly, that family should come first.
After all, that is what we will be remembered for — our relationships. To underscore this idea, visit a cemetery and take a look at the inscriptions on the gravestones. None of them describe how much money people earned or what colleges they attended, the size of their houses or any of their other achievements. Instead, many of the engraved words read, “Beloved Mother,” “Beloved Father,” “Beloved Grandparent,” etc. It becomes clear that in the end, who one is in relationship to those around him is much more important than what he accomplished throughout his lifetime.
The essence of Moses’ words spoken generations ago to the tribes of Reuben and Gad still ring true. Who we are — parent, child, spouse, friend — is ultimately more important than the wealth we amass and the tasks we accomplish. As we read this week’s Torah portion, may we remember to put our loved ones first on our lists.
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is associate rabbi and director of education at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.