– Priorities – Torah Portion: Matot by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
In this week’s Parsha, the Jewish people are in final preparations for entering the Land of Israel. Two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad have been blessed with such an abundance of flocks and herds, that they anticipate not having enough grazing land in Israel. So they propose the following: Instead of taking our regular portion of land within Israel proper, we’ll instead stay here on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.
Moses’ reaction to this request? He lambastes them! Why? Moses wasn’t upset that they were choosing to stay outside Israel — actually they were helping to gather sparks of kabbalistic holiness from around the world. Rather, Moses was upset because when making their request, Reuven and Gad blatantly disregard the needs of their children — and mention their cattle only. (Numbers 32:4)
The leaders of Reuven and Gad get the hint. Somewhat. In 32:16, they approach Moses again and restate their request. This time they mention their children — but only after first speaking of their cattle. Moses again is not happy at their lack of priority for putting business ahead of family.
Finally, they seem get the idea. In 32:26, they put everything in the proper order — family first, business second.
We’ve all met people who are working overtime to “give their kids something extra” — while ruining that very relationship by not spending enough time with the kids!
Imagine the case of Mr. Schwartz, an investment banker in a major Wall Street financial firm. He spends most of his days trying to reach his lifelong goal of earning $10 million. He and his wife have three children.
One day, a wealthy philanthropist named Mr. Cohen, who unfortunately has no children, decides to make Schwartz a very generous offer. Cohen says, “You’re spending your whole life to make $10 million dollars, right? But your kids are growing up without a father. You’re off to work before they get up, and home long after they’ve gone to sleep. On weekends, you’re at the club entertaining business clients. So I’ll give you the biggest shortcut of your financial career. I’m willing to offer you $10 million dollars in exchange for the rights to adopt one of your children. He will have the best of everything. The only condition is that you will never be able to see or hear from him again.”
What does Schwartz say? Ten million dollars certainly gets his attention! But even he realizes that there are things in life you can’t put a price tag on. Schwartz stares Cohen right between the eyes and announces: “No deal.”
Ten million dollars. “Money can’t buy you love.” (Somebody should write a song about that.)
Now imagine the scene. Schwartz has just shut the door on a cool 10 million. He rushes home where his kids are playing on the living room floor. What do you think he does when he sees them?
With tears in his eyes, he runs over and gives them each a big hug and kiss. “You darling creatures are worth more than all the money in the universe!”
Then he stops and realizes: “Where have I been all their lives? I have something at home that’s worth more to me than all the money in the world — and I’m working so hard I barely spend one hour a week with them!”
So what does Schwartz do? He calls the office, announces he’s taking a two-week vacation, and sends the maids, nannies and babysitters away. He’s going to spend two blissful weeks with his kids.
After struggling for an hour to get the stroller open, Schwartz finally makes it to the park. He and the kids are having a grand time. But then comes dinner, bath and story time. After enduring food fights, floods in the bathtub and endless readings of “Babar Goes to the Circus,” Schwartz flops down on the couch, turns to his wife and says, “Perhaps I was a bit hasty about that vacation. You know I have a lot of responsibilities at work…”
Schwartz is making a big mistake. More than presents, children need your presence.
YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE
The Torah tells us to recite the “Shema” prayer twice each day. It says: “And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.”
Typically the Torah presents a series as a progression from easiest to hardest: Love God emotionally (“heart”), and even be willing to give up your life if necessary (“soul”), and even be willing to spend your money, too!
Yet if this is a progression, are there really people who consider money more important than life itself?!
And the answer is yes. The Talmud speaks about someone who walks across a thorny field, and picks up his pants in order to avoid getting them ripped. Of course, the person’s legs get all cut up and scratched — but at least the pants are saved!
One time I had to stay overnight in Nevada, where gambling is legal and every hotel has a casino. I went up to my hotel room and wanted to open the window to get some fresh air. But the window wouldn’t open more than a crack. I thought it was stuck. So I pushed harder and harder. Finally I asked: “What is the problem with this window?”
I was told that the windows in this hotel are specially designed not to open more than a crack. This way, people who have lost money gambling won’t be tempted to jump out the window and kill themselves.
THE LESSON IS CLEAR
In our Parsha, after travelling through the desert for 40 years and enduring countless trials and tribulations, the Jewish people are now standing across the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. It is one of the defining moments in all of Jewish history.
But Reuven and Gad say they’d rather take good grazing land than enter Israel!
They had come so far, but they only went halfway. They were distracted by material goals when it really counted.
The Talmud says that when Reuven and Gad later saw the rich life in the Land of Israel, they regretted their decision. But the story has an even sadder ending: When Assyrian King Sanchereb exiled the Jewish people during the time of the First Temple, the first tribes to be conquered and sent away were, you guessed it, Reuven and Gad.
It happens to all of us from time to time. Objectively, we can know our priorities. But sometimes we get distracted.
May we have the strength and clarity to connect our heart to our mind — and to act upon that which we intellectually know to be right.
Sugar Bowl Priorities by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
January 1, 2003
When the Florida State football team played in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, it was without starting quarterback Chris Rix. That’s because last week, Rix missed a final exam and was deemed academically ineligible to play.
Florida State had taken a stand: We are an academic institution first, and an athletic team second. Our priorities are clear, even if it reduces our chance of winning a major bowl game, threatening a loss of prestige and financial rewards. (Florida State lost, 26-13.)
This reminds me of my own brush with big-time college athletics. Years ago, at one of America’s largest universities, I was taking a biology lab course, a requirement for all undergraduates. On the first day of class, we were told to “pair up” with what would be our lab partner for the duration of the semester. I sat down next to a guy my age in the back of the room. We became lab partners and fast friends.
Fred was a fascinating character. An All-American cornerback playing for our school’s championship team (he later played in the NFL), Fred kept me entertained with fascinating stories of his on- and off-field escapades.
But while Fred excelled on the field, he viewed academics as a necessary evil. In that respect, I served his purpose well. The lab course was structured so that every day we were assigned a different experiment to perform. We’d record our findings in a workbook, answer a litany of analysis questions, and upon completion would be free to go. The professor allotted three hours to complete the work, but I had a knack for finishing in 45 minutes. Fred would basically watch me experiment, and I would show him what to write in his workbook. We were always the first pair to finish and leave.
Fred loved me for sparing him dreadful hours of sitting in biology lab.
Grades for the course were based entirely on a single, final exam, and it wasn’t until two weeks before the exam that I suddenly woke up to a grim reality. All semester, Fred had been inattentively relying on all my answers; he was sure to fail the course.
I quickly grabbed the phone. “Fred,” I said, “the final exam is coming up and you need to learn the concepts we’ve been dealing with. I created the problem and I’m going to fix it. We’ll get together every evening for the next two weeks, and I’ll teach you whatever you need to know to pass the final exam.”
Fred chuckled at my naivet?. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I spoke to the professor and he knows who I am. I already passed the exam.”
The university had turned a blind eye; they chose winning over academic integrity.
BEYOND THE FOOTBALL FIELD
This issue extends far beyond the football field. In fact, it could be said that all of life comes down to a simple choice: material success vs. spiritual success. (Or in other words, “getting ahead” vs. doing the right thing.)
Of course, these choices are not mutually exclusive, and it is certainly possible to fulfill both. But when they come into conflict — as on occasion they inevitably will — what do we choose?
For example, which do we encourage our employees to do: To hide the defect in our product, or to highlight the advantages while disclosing the defect?
Or when sitting around the dinner table, which incident arouses a stronger praise : When a child scores the winning goal, or when he treats another person with respect?
This choice is the fulcrum which balances how we view the world and interact with others.
BLESSING THE TORAH FIRST
The Torah (Genesis 48:20) spells out what our priority should be. Before his death, Jacob blessed his two grandchildren, saying that for all generations, Jewish parents will bless their children to be “like Ephraim and Menashe.” (Many parents give this blessing to their children every Friday night.)
Yet the order of the two names, Ephraim and Menashe, is peculiar. Since Menashe was older brother, we would expect him to come first.
The commentaries explain that the order is based on how these two brothers spent the majority of their time. Ephraim spent his days learning Torah with his grandfather, Jacob. Menashe, meanwhile, served as executive assistant to his father Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt.
The two brothers represent our dual role in this world: on one hand, professional achievement and livelihood (Menashe), combined with the need for spiritual and personal growth (Ephraim).
Indeed, both are necessary. But the question is: Which takes priority? When getting a better job means sacrificing ethical standards, what gives way to what?
Jacob’s message is that the “Ephraim” attribute of Torah ethics must precede the “Menashe” attribute of professional achievement.
In fact, our essence as a people depends on this idea. The Talmud (Nedarim 81a) says that the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel in the first century CE “because they did not bless the Torah first.” In other words, explains Rabbi Yissocher Frand, the parents of that era lacked the right priority. When blessing our children, we are supposed to say, “May God make you like Ephraim (i.e. give you spiritual-ethical success) and like Menashe (professional-financial success).” Both are necessary. But if it is not clear that Torah ethics must be the focus of our lives — that we “bless the Torah first” — then there is cause for destruction of the land.
It’s all a matter of where we place the emphasis.
GOAL IN LIFE
Years ago I met a young woman who had recently become Torah observant. She had graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college, and upon meeting up with some of her parent’s country club friends, she was asked: “What do you want to do with your life?”
“My goal is to become a good person,” she said. “A good daughter, a good neighbor, a good friend. And hopefully one day, a good wife and mother.”
That young woman had revised her previously held assumptions. Yes, it’s nice to become a successful [doctor, lawyer, accountant… fill in the blank]. But that is not the primary purpose of life.
That’s why I think this year’s Sugar Bowl is so significant. Because when Florida State took to the field, though they were without their starting quarterback, they had something much greater: their priorities intact. And that’s a positive new years message for us all.