I feel the parasha of this week is somehow designed and dedicated to Sir Menasseh Meyer,
the founder of our Synagogue and more important
the founder of our school!
Let me elaborate in recalling what we are reading this week!
The Israelites are almost within sight of the promised land.
They came out victorious against the Midianites.
No longer are the Israelites in the desert.
We cannot stop them,
They are moving toward the Jordan,
to the west of which lies their destination:
the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’.
The members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad begin to have different thoughts.
Seeing that the land through which they are travelling is ideal for raising cattle, they decide that they would like to stay there, to the east of the Jordan.
Moses is angry at the suggestion:
Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites,
“Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land the Lord has given them?
The tribes accept his objection however,
with a compromise,
Came back to Moses and said:
“We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children. But we are ready to arm ourselves and go ahead of the Israelites until we have brought them to their place. Meanwhile our women and children will live in fortified cities, for protection from the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance. We will not receive any inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan, because our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan.”
They are telling to Moses that they are willing to join the rest of the Israelites in the battles that lie ahead.
They are not afraid of battle.
They are not trying to evade their responsibilities toward their people as a whole.
They just wish to raise cattle,
and this land to the east of the Jordan is ideal.
Moses agrees. If they keep their word, they may settle east of the Jordan.
That is the story on the surface. But as so often in the Torah, there are subtexts as well as texts.
One in particular was noticed by the sages,
with their sensitivity to
nuance and detail.
Listen carefully to what the Reubenites and Gadites said:
Then they came up to him and said,
“We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children.”
“Build cities for your children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”
The ordering of the words is crucial.
The men of Reuben and Gad put property before people:
they speak of
• their flocks first,
• their women and children second.
Moses reverses the order, putting special emphasis
on the children.
As Rashi notes:
They paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters, because they mentioned
their cattle before the children.
Moses said to them:
" Not so.
First build cities for your children, and only then, folds for your flocks."
The midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah (22: 9)
makes an interpretation of the line in Ecclesiastes:
The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left. (Ecclesiastes 10:2)
The midrash identifies:
" right " with Torah and life:
“He brought the fire of a religion to them from his right hand (Deut. 33:2).
" Left " refers to worldly goods:
In the books of Proverbs ( 3: 16 ) it is written:
• Long life is in her right hand,
• Wealth and honour are in her left hand.
The men of Reuben and Gad put ‘wealth and honour’
faith and posterity.
Moses hints to them that their priorities are wrong.
The midrash continues:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them:
" Seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in it.”
One of the most consistent patterns of Jewish history is the way communities, through the ages, put
children and their education first.
What is a typical Jewish family?
The most important item in the family budget is the tuition fee that must be paid each term to the teacher of the younger boys’ school.
The mother, who has charge of household accounts,
will cut the family food costs to the limit if necessary, in order to pay for her sons schooling.
Worst comes to the worst, she will pawn her cherished jewels in order to pay for the school term.
The boy must study,
the boy must become a good Jew
For her, the two are synonymous.
In 1849, when Samson Raphael Hirsch became rabbi in Frankfurt, he insisted that the community create a school before building a synagogue.
It is hard to think of any other religion or civilization that is as child-centred as Judaism,
on putting their education first.
When Moses’ scolded the tribes of Reuben and Gad,
This is not a minor detail but a fundamental statement about Jewish priorities.
Property is secondary, children primary.
This is the will of Sir Menasseh Meyer,
This is why today we have a beautiful school for our kids,
This was the spirit of the a great person who already understood that:
It is not what we own that gives us a share in eternity,
but those to whom we give birth and the effort we make to ensure that they carry our belief and way of life into the next generation.