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Maurice A. Salth
On Ordering Our Priorities (Parashat Matot-Mas’ei)

Maurice A. Salth  |  July 20, 2012

This week we read the final of the two portions from the book of Numbers, Matot and Mas’ei.  And after almost forty years of wandering, the Israelites are on the border of the Land of Israel—they’re not in Israel yet, but they’re looking in—and they’re about to enter the Promised Land. 

At this sensitive point in their history, tribal leaders from the tribes of Gad and Reuben approach Moses and all the elders of Israel—they’re all there at this special spot—and they say about the land they’re in, this kind of area on the other side of the Jordan,  “This is spectacular real estate. And it is particularly good for cattle, and by the way we have a lot of cattle in our tribes.  Can we just stay here?”


What do you think Moses’ response to that question is?


No way!!


Moses is not pleased, and for ten verses in this first part of the double portion, which is a lot in the Torah verse, Moses gives a very harsh critique to these tribal leaders.  He is concerned for a number of reasons.  I mean you can imagine why he’d be concerned.  But one is that if other tribes are going to go into the Land of Israel, and Moses is concerned, and I think he was right, they’re going to face conflict.  They’re going to face war.  And he wonders if these tribes are trying to abandon their brothers in this potential dangerous period in the Israelite history.


Also coming to Moses’ mind is a memory of what happened almost forty years ago, when ten of twelve scouts that went into the Land of Israel came back and gave poor reports about the land and they didn’t want to go in, and all the Israelites who heard that were afraid of going into Israel, and that’s actually the reason why the Israelites wander for forty years (or in this case, another thirty-eight years), because the generations that were so afraid of going into the Land of Israel needed to die and new ones needed to be born so they could be courageous enough and kind of lose that slave mentality.


So Moses is afraid that’s going to happen again.  He says to them in verse 14 of chapter 32 of Numbers,  “And now you, a breed of sinful men…you will bring calamity upon the Israelites!”


So the tribal leaders hear this, and they listen respectfully and they amend their request.  They say,  “Oh no, we just want to build little areas for our sheep and some towns for our children, and then we’ll go with all the Israelite tribes into the Land of Israel, and we’ll make sure that everyone is placed as God has commanded.  We won’t come back to this area until we complete that task.”


And Moses listens to them, and after hearing that, he consents to their request.


Now, some commentators challenge Moses’ harsh critique of these two tribes.  After all, they agree go into the Land of Israel with all the other tribes.  They actually say,  “We’re going to be Chaluzim,” and some of you might know this term,  “Chaluzim,” often translated as “pioneers” in modern-day Hebrew, but in this case,  “Chaluzim” really meant “troops” that would support their fellow Israelites.


So some are really harsh that Moses is really being so critical.  But the majority of sages agree with Moses, noting that in the end, Moses identified that these leaders did not have their priorities straight, and it was putting them and all the Israelites at great risk.


So let’s just look at the priorities that are being discussed in this portion.  According to Moses, the number one priority is protecting the Israelites and making sure that they can all go into the Land of Israel.  This actually benefits even those that want to stay right on the outskirts, because without a secure arrival into Israel, surely these two tribal groups would be in trouble.


And there are a couple of other priorities that these tribes have.  One is to make sure that their children and their families are safe, and two is to provide for their livelihood, that their cattle and sheep have a place to graze and prosper.


But that’s Moses’ order.  What are the leaders of the tribes’ priorities?  What’s their first priority?  Sheep!  [Laughter] …And calves.


Second priority: family.  Okay, that’s getting a little bit better…  And the third priority is this communal effort for which the Israelites have been on a journey for forty years.  Not the right order.  And so here’s the bottom line about this week’s portion: priorities matter, and the order in which we set these priorities matter.


And these Israelites leaders just did not get that.  It was unclear what was going on with them, but something was clearly off.  They didn’t just suggest this on the journey as they were walking around and they bumped into Moses and said,  “Whaddaya think about this?” They went in front of everyone to make this suggestion, and said,  “This is really nice here, we have a lot of cattle, this is good cattle land, we want to stay.”  It was not the appropriate way to look at what could be true for their tribe.


So something is wrong there.  And most significantly, this text is here to ask us to reflect on our own priorities and their order in our lives.  Are we thinking and acting more like Moses does in this portion?  Or are we somehow falling into the category of the the Gaddites and Reubenites?  What are our priorities?  And are they correct and in the proper order?


Now keep in mind, Moses’ order was much more difficult than the order of the others.  Securing this Land of Israel and making sure one’s family would be provided for: those are much more difficult tasks than taking care of cattle.


Now Moses knew that to be Jewish is not to go look for the easiest path in life.  He knew, and we know, that while making the right choices can be difficult, when we do so, and when we order them in the right way, the results can provide us with a rich and meaningful and highly satisfying life.  That we know is actually the path to the most satisfactory life, even though the path of making those choices can be arduous along the week.


So our challenge this week, our portion reminds us, is to follow the path of Moses, perhaps to tap into some of his strength and passion courage, and to make the tough choices, but the right choices, so that we can bring blessing and goodness into our lives and those around us.

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