Danger of making incidental significant

  • RabbiMalcolm
While encamped on the eastern side of the River Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, owners of cattle, observed that the Land of Jazer and Gilead was suitable for the rearing of livestock. Knowing that the people of Israel were about to cross over the Jordan to enter the land of Canaan, they asked that they be allowed to remain and settle on the east side of the river.
by Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, Temple Israel, Cape Town | Aug 01, 2019

Moses, misunderstanding the intentions of the Reubenites and Gadites, reprimanded them for attempting to dissuade the Israelites from entering the promised land. The Reubenites and Gadites explained that far from undermining G-d’s intention, they were prepared to lead the assault on the inhabitants of Canaan, and would return to their homes on the east side of the Jordan only once all the Israelites had been settled on their holdings on the west side of the Jordan.

While this was a very noble gesture on the part of these two tribes, their reply betrays their priorities. They explained that they would go heavily armed into battle after they had built sheepfolds for their cattle, and cities for their children on the east side of the Jordan.

From a legal standpoint, the declaration of intent to establish a chazokah, (a hold) on the land by building sheepfolds and cities is perfectly in order. Such construction signifies occupation, and therefore possession of the land. But Moses was perceptive that the descendants of Reuben and Gad were more concerned about their property and material wealth than they were about the safety and security of their families, hence the order of their building projects: (Numbers 32:16).

In his reply, Moses subtlety corrected them, urging them to first take care of their children, and then worry about their wealth. “Build towns for your children, and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Numbers 32:20-24).

Midrash Bemidbar Rabba (22:9), commenting on the verse, declares, “The descendants of Reuben and Gad made the incidental significant, and the significant incidental.”

While Judaism doesn’t advocate abstention from the physical pleasures of life –and even includes a petition for material wealth in the Shemoneh Esreh recited thrice daily – our tradition condemns the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.

Thus, according to Midrash Bemidbar Rabba (22:9), G-d said to the tribes, “Since you mention your cattle before your children, you will find no blessing in your wealth.” The Tanna ben Zoma defined a rich person as someone who is content with their portion. (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Ben Zoma’s intention is not for people to accept adverse conditions and circumstances, but he cautions against becoming obsessed with the acquisition of material possessions.

Such a fetish is an ever-dangerous reality in the modern consumer society. There is nothing wrong in acquiring products that make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable, as long as we don’t lose sight of what’s truly important – the pursuit of holiness in the form of intellectual and spiritual growth, and the development of our relationship with G-d, our fellow human beings, and the world we inhabit.


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