In this week’s Parsha, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe Rabbeinu with a surprising request. After spending forty years wandering through the wilderness in anticipation of the land of Israel, Hashem’s promised land, they ask if they can stay behind. The Torah introduces their request with an important piece of background information.
Both the tribe of Reuven and the tribe of Gad had large amounts of cattle, and the land of Arvos Mo’av on the east side of the Jordan river had excellent pasture. Moshe responds negatively, reprimanding the tribes of Reuven and Gad for acting in a way that could lower the national morale in their conquest of the land of Israel.
Moshe goes as far as to compare them to the spies who scared the Jewish people out of conquest and therefore caused the nation to receive a punishment that no member of their generation would enter the land of Israel. The tribes of Reuven and Gad explained, in their defense, that they had no intention of discouraging the nation; they would even volunteer to fight on the front lines while leaving their families and wealth behind.
Rashi cites the Medrash Tanchuma that highlights a nuance in the dialogue between the tribes of Reuven and Gad and Moshe Rabbeinu. “They approached him and said, “Pens for the flocks shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children” (Bamidbar 32:16). The tribes of Reuven and Gad first mention their flocks and then their families. When Moshe responds, he reverses the order: “Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flock, and what has come from your mouth shall you do” (Bamidbar 32:24).
The Medrash Tanchuma explains: The tribes of Reuven and Gad were more concerned about their money than their children. The first thing on their minds was building pens for their flocks, then only after that did they mention building homes for their children. Moshe responded by telling them that this was incorrect; what is most important should be first and what is less important should be second. First you will build for your families, and only then will you will build for your flocks.
It is indeed shocking that the tribes of Reuven and Gad put their money before their families. After all we are not discussing 20th century American suburbia, where the luxury house, the BMW, and the dog come long before any thoughts of children. These were people the Dor De’ah, the Jews of the wilderness who were led and taught by Moshe Rabbeinu. How is it possible that their priorities were so corrupt?
In my years as a student of Ner Israel, I heard a beautiful explanation from Rabbi Yissocher Frand. Rabbi Frand suggested that there is no question that if you would ask the tribes of Reuven and Gad what they valued more, they would tell you that their families were more important than their money. It wouldn’t be a lie; they sincerely valued their families more than their possessions.
Why then did they put their flocks first? For the family!
They needed a good parnassah to support their family. We all know how much it costs to support a family, it’s not cheap and it’s not easy, not now and not then either. The devil is in the details. A large house with a separate bedroom for every child is nice, but is it worth the price? If that house will require working nights and weekends, then what time is left for the family. It is far more important for every child to have parents who make time to spend with them than having parents that provide them with every luxury.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad were well intentioned, but their priorities were off balance. They put their family’s needs before their family. We too must learn to keep our priorities balanced. We must make time to spend with our families and develop and nurture our relationships with our spouses and children, even if we won’t be able to provide them with all the luxuries and conveniences we would like; because in reality they need us more than any of those things.