Parshat Matot-Masei: Getting our Priorities Straight

I used to think that getting married was the single biggest change to someone’s social life. Once you were married, things would never be the same. You couldn’t make big decisions without consulting your partner-in-life. I used to think that…until I had children. Now I think that having children is a more substantial change to one’s life. Nothing is the same once you have children. Being responsible for the life of a person who is powerless to help themselves is an awesome responsibility, and that responsibility influences one’s priorities and the choices one makes in life. Or at least, they should be which brings us to this week’s double Torah portion.

Parshat Matot-Masei describes the final days at the end of the Israel’s forty years of wandering. The generation of slaves who left Egypt has all died. A people who emerged from Egypt as a ragtag bunch of escaped slaves has transformed into a strong and powerful nation. To illustrate that point, the beginning of Matot (which means “tribes”), describes a war of revenge on the Midianites, who had previously vexed Israel. The tribes quickly muster a military force of 12,000(!) troops, led by Pinchas the  Priest, Aharon’s grandson, and accompanied by the holy vessels from the Mishkan and the silver trumpets. The entire narrative of the war is over in two verses.  Two verses. This is a nation that can handle itself in times of war. (The remainder of the issues about this war center on how compassionate the troops should have been towards their female captives.) But how do they handle life after the war?

After the battle is over, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh notice that the land in which they are encamped is perfect for their needs as cattle farmers. So they ask Moshe a question:

“The land that God has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us, if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Bamidbar 32:4-5)

At first glance, the request seems reasonable. That piece of land has been conquered, and would be an ideal resource for their livelihood. What is more, this would leave far more land for the remaining tribes to divide among themselves! Is this not a generous offer? Of course it is! It’s a win-win.

But look at the request again, as Moshe does.

Are they suggesting that they would not cross the Jordan ever? What about the conquest of the land that lays ahead of them? What about the Sinai covenant? Will they not come to the Mishkan for national festivals? Are they turning their backs on God? On the people? Moshe lays all of this at their feet, and add one final psychological concern: “[The spies who brought the bad report about the land] turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that God had given them.” In other words, if even one tribe does not cross the Jordan, none of the others will either. History has borne this out in the past. This “generous” request has problematic implications for the entire nation.

As it turns out, this is not their actual intention at all! Immediately that tribe steps up and offer themselves as shock troops for the coming conquest of the land. But first they would like to “build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Bamidbar 32:16) Excellent! No problem. They just want to settle down first and then join the Israelite army, coming back home after the war is over. Moshe accepts these terms, and makes them vow to uphold their end of the bargain. But then he concludes with slightly different but crucially different language:

“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Bamidbar 32:24)

The tribal leaders mentioned the sheep before the children; Moshe mentions the children before the sheep. Why does Moshe switch the order in which these tribes will settle down?

Moshe understands that these tribes have their priorities in the wrong order. What drove the initial request of this tribe was the allure of land, cattle, what we would call a career. They put their career before their families. At first. we thought that they were only putting career before their national allegiance, which would have been a serious enough issue. The truth was actually far more problematic than that. It was career before families. Their families were going to stay in their temporary tents until they had built the sheepfolds.

Moshe, having regained confidence in their national commitment, gently reminds them that as important, if not more important, than career is their commitment to their families. They must settle their families before they can do anything for their careers, in this case, their animals. These tribes understood Moshe’s message:

“Your servants will do as my Lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead, while your servants, all those recruited for war, cross over…to engage in battle…” (Bamidbar 32:26-27)

So too this is with us! How often do we make decisions that put career before family? Does that promotion mean more money at the expense of being with family? Is less time with family worth money? This week’s Torah portion asks us to consider how we balance work and family. Which do we put first? How do we make those decisions? Each situation being different, Moshe reminds us that we need to put the needs of our family front and center when we make decisions about our work.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone


  1. Talk about how your work impacts your family, both in positive and negative ways. Discuss the balance between devoting one’s self to work and one’s self to family. How can putting in too much energy affect the other? How can putting in less energy into one affect the other?


  1. If a man makes a vow, can he get out of it or not?
  2. If a woman makes a vow, what are some ways that she is allowed to get out of that vow?
  3. How does Israel assembly its army to go to war against Midian?
  4. What is the connection between the war against Midian and last week’s Torah portion?
  5. What does Israel do with the spoils of war from the campaign against Midian?
  6. Which tribes want to live in the lands east of the Jordan?
  7. What are the problems with those tribes living east of the Jordan?
  8. What do those tribes promise to do for the nation of Israel?
  9. Find all of the locations where Israel camped during their forty years of wandering.
  10. What are the borders of the land of Israel, according to Bamidbar 34?
  11. How will Israel divide up the land among the twelve tribes?
  12. What is a city of refuge? Who can go there to get protection?
  13. Earlier in the Torah, the daughters of Tzelophchad change the laws of inheritance to inherit their father’s property (they have no brothers). What is the new limitation imposed upon on them at the end of Massei?

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