Putting the Material Second (Parashat Matot - Maasei)

A strange puzzle surrounds this week’s Torah portion.

In it, we read the tale of two-and-a-half tribes, Reuben, Gad, and much of Manasseh, who petition Moses to allow them to remain on the other side of the Jordan river and not enter Canaan. The land is good where they are. The produce is robust. Why should they be made to enter a country that they don’t want when there is perfectly good earth to settle on right here?

Moses agrees to let them stay with one provision: when the Israelites eventually conquer the land, they will serve as shock troop. Afterward they can return home.

And that’s exactly what they do. However a few generations later, this happens:

These were the heads of their families: Epher, Ishi, Eliel, Azriel, Jeremiah, Hodaviah and Jahdiel. They were brave warriors, famous men, and heads of their families.  But they were unfaithful to the God of their ancestors and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them.  So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day. (1 Chron 5:24-26)

The question that arise from this episode is simple: why would God allow these tribes to remain outside the land, only later to have them conquered by a foreign nation? While there is a simple answer - the text tells us their downfall was a result of their worship of other Gods - in fact, our Rabbis like to imagine that the seeds of their defeat were planted long before this incident, at the very moment when they asked for dispensation to remain behind.

So, what was their sin? Our Rabbis give many answers but one has always stood out to me: the tribes privileged the world of things over the world of people.

Our Rabbis conduct a close reading of the story and notice that when the people ask to remain behind, they first mention that the land is good for raising cattle and then reference their child, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Num 32:16). Though a small error, this freudian slip betrayed their true desire; they wished to live across the Jordan for selfish reason. Soon, say our Rabbis, a punishment was decreed:

God said to Reuben and Gad: Since you mention your cattle before your children (Num 32:16), you will find no blessing in your wealth (Num Rabbah 22:9).

Ironically when Moses accedes to their request he offers them a subtle rebuke, putting the benefits in the right order: “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised” (Numbers 32:24). In other words, take care of your people, then attend to your assets.

Though subtle, the error of the tribes seems to rest upon one of the great follies of human nature. Too often we allow our quest for material gain to overshadow the need for human compassion. Though they are certainly linked - money and economic growth are important means toward security and prosperity - too often we privilege a building over a community,  property over a person, a deal over a life.

Our Rabbis understood this well. In less than two weeks we will commemorate Tisha B’av, the historical date of the destruction of the first and second Temples. As we do, it’s important to remember an interesting teaching about the period.

Our Rabbis liken the destruction of the Temple to a king who hears that his son has turned toward evil (Lam Rabbah 4:14):

The king forthwith ascended to the chamber, tore the curtains and broke the rods; but [the son’s tutor] took a piece of the rod which he used as a flute and played upon it. People said to him, “the king has overthrown his son’s chamber but did not pour out his anger upon his son.”

Though it might seem strange that this teacher is celebrating the king’s tantrum with song, his actions make a great deal of sense. The king could have attacked his son, just like God could have destroyed the people. But neither chose this course. Both understood the value of life over property. Something needed to take their wrath, so both the king and God chose to raze a building rather than hurt a person. As the Rabbis teach, God “poured out His wrath upon wood and stone and not upon Israel.”

In both the story of the tribes and that of the destruction of the Temple our tradition draws a clear demarcation between the inanimate and animate, between the living and lifeless, between humanity and everything else.

Too often we raise up that which deserves little respect above the people in our lives. We privilege our jobs over our relationships, our wages over our dignity, our wealth over our love. Both stories come to warn us to watch out when we do. There is a hierarchy to our interests and we err when we choose the wrong side.