Parashat Matot: Balancing Act: How do we divide responsibility to ourselves and responsibility to our community?

Matot, Numbers 30:2−32:42

D'Var Torah By: Hillary Ross

Although Matot is brimming with several juicy topics worthy of commentary, I've decided to put the sexist and genocidal issues aside and focus on one that we all struggle with constantly: serving yourself vs. serving your community. While I will grant you that our conflicts today don't quite rival in gravity those addressed in the Torah, why do so many people dodge jury duty? Or neglect to add the extra $1 to the grocery bill as a donation to colon cancer research? Or treat Election Day like a national holiday instead of, you know, voting?

In Matot, some men from the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses about acquiring the lands of Jazer and Gilead, on the east side of the Jordan River. The Reubenites and Gadites tell Moses that these lands are ideal for cattle, and since they own a lot, they would greatly benefit from settling there. This request infuriates Moses; "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" he demands (Numbers 32:6). Ouch... and he doesn't stop there. Moses compares their desire to not move to Israel to the disloyalty of their ancestors, who were sent to scout the land of Israel, but returned with bogus reports. Moses tells them, "And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers..." (Numbers 32:14). Double ouch. Yet despite these massive blows, the Reubenites and the Gadites manage to strike a deal with Moses. They ask if Moses will grant them enough time to build sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children in Jazer and Gilead. After that, they will dutifully serve in the battle for the land of Israel and will not leave until every family is settled.

Rabbis and commentators condemn the Reubenites and Gadites for their greed. How could they be so self-serving? How could they value the well-being of their livestock over the well-being of all Israelites? How could they have wandered for 40 years only to decide, basically on the eve of battle, that they would rather just stay put? Honestly, I think these criticisms- though not unwarranted- are a bit harsh. Even in biblical times people couldn't escape human nature. It's not hard to see why the Reubenites and the Gadites would want to live in a place where they would flourish. Furthermore, it seems like Moses jumps down their throats without giving them a chance to fully explain that they will still fight in the battle for Israel; they'd just prefer not to live there. As Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm said, "Why do Jews [today] continue to live outside Israel- on the other side of the Jordan or the other side of the Atlantic? Because they've found good grazing lands for their cattle, and it's a shame to give it up."

Related Question

  • When the Reubenites and Gadites make an arrangement with Moses they ask to "build sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children." Yet when Moses responds, he tells them to "build towns for [their] children and sheepfolds for [their] flocks..." Why is the order of "sheepfolds" and "towns" reversed?

This question troubles me. On the one hand, I sympathize with the Reubenites' and Gadites' desire to live outside of Israel because of the financial benefit. I cannot, however, understand prioritizing their cattle over their children. In my mind, I imagine that their request to live east of the Jordan stems from their wish to provide more for their families. It would seem from the text, however, that the welfare of their cattle is more important than the welfare of their families. By intentionally reversing their words, Moses is emphasizing that for the Reubenites and Gadites, wealth is their first priority, and everything else is secondary.

  • Is Moses justified in recalling the actions of the Reubenites' and Gadites' ancestors while reproaching them?

I can't help but feel like, even for Moses, this is kind of a low blow. It's unfair to tie someone's behavior to that of their relatives. Also, many students of Jewish law say there is an ancient rule banning speaking ill of the dead, because the dead lack the opportunity to defend themselves. It seems that Moses is trying to find the deepest way to cut into the men of Reuben and Gad, and a slur on their families' legacy would rip the deepest gash.

Taking Action 

  • Through actions trivial or monumental, give back to your community.

Most of us think about ourselves and our families 99 percent of the time. It's not something to be ashamed of, it's just who we are. What's important is to not forget the remaining one percent of our daily lives that we should contribute to a cause greater than ourselves. Maybe you recycle your bottle of water, even if it means exerting the extra effort to get up from your desk and walk down the hall. Or maybe you dedicate an hour to visit patients at a hospital. Whatever you do, just do something.

  • Family comes first. It's just that simple.

We can all agree that families are tough. They rile the most anger, frustration, and sadness. But they also create the most joy, love, and fulfillment. You don't have to cherish your family every second of the day, but you do have to appreciate them every day of your life. In the end, family means everything.

Food For Thought 

Hillel said "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14) How do we balance the constant conflict of responsibility to ourselves and responsibility to our community?

Reference Materials

Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012

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