While I was in my synagogue’s office one morning, the phone rang, and I answered. The lady on the other end said, “Hello, may I please speak to the owner?”
I answered, “Certainly, it will be our pleasure to let you talk to him. You have reached The House of God, and the Owner is available at either 6:15 or 7:45 every morning, or during this coming week He can also be reached at 7:45 in the evening.”
“Well in that case I will call back at one of those times,” the lady said.
I responded, “Oh no, you can’t do that because the Owner doesn’t take any telephone calls. You must come in person to see Him if you wish to talk to Him.”
By now the lady was getting a bit frustrated and said, “Excuse me, but why can’t Mr. Gad come to the phone?”
I told her, “Because He only likes a face-to-face conversation.”
It was then she must have realized she hadn’t reached a typical business. “Sir, may I ask what kind of business have I reached?”
“Madam, you have reached a synagogue.”
Her response was most telling. “Oh, in that case I can’t sell you anything. Nothing that I am selling will impress your boss,” she said before hanging up.
This lady’s observation is the theme of a story recounted in this week’s Torah portion.
In Chapter 32, the Torah recounts how the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiated with Moses to let them settle the Trans-Jordan. Reuven and Gad argued coherently and logically for the land. They noted that this land was originally owned by the defeated Kings of Bashan and the Emorites and was therefore not inhabited by anyone. What were they to do with it? Just let it go unused? It was fertile and well watered, more so than the territory on the other side of the Jordan.
With these facts, they came to Moses and offered what they thought was a reasonable proposition. They had a multitude of cattle, and the Trans-Jordan land was perfect for raising cattle. If they would take possession of it, everyone would benefit. It would enlarge the boundaries of the Jewish state, and it would give more room for the other 10 tribes to divide the land west of the Jordan, creating more prosperity for all involved.
Moses bitterly opposed this idea. He was so incensed with their proposal that he compared their idea to the sin of the scouts who caused the people to be punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was concerned that their proposal would sabotage the entire enterprise of settling the Land of Israel, making the other tribes lose interest in fighting for the land. The argument between Moses and the two tribes only ended when they entered into an agreement that the two tribes would act as the vanguard in capturing the Land of Israel.
But the question remains, what justification did Moses have that allowed him to denounce them so fiercely? How could he compare them to the scouts? Our sages noted that the answer lay in the wording of their proposal. They told Moses, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, considered this wording and came to the conclusion: “They were concerned for their property more than they were for their sons and daughters, for they put the mention of their livestock ahead of their children.”
What came first in their request? It was the sheepfolds and not the children. It was making money and not building schools and synagogues that took priority. For that reason Moses was upset. He responded by changing the order when he told the two tribes, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your flock; and do that which has gone out of your mouth” (Numbers 32:24).
Rashi explains, “Moses said to them: This is not right. Make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children and afterward enclosures for your penning.”
Moses challenged them to realize that their values needed adjusting.
It would be wrong for us to just interpret this story as a moment in biblical history without realizing it resonates with modern man just as it did some 3,500 years ago.
How many of us place our work before our families and all other concerns? One modern ethicist captured the entire issue when he said, “No tombstone ever read, ‘He spent extra hours in the office.'”
At the end of the day the Almighty is impressed with us only when we know how to organize our priorities correctly.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.