Parashat Mattot

Living in Balance

What accounts for the negative correlation between material excess and awareness of the Divine?

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This week's Torah portion, Mattot, conveys a profound message about the ways in which we struggle to balance material and spiritual aspirations. With the Jewish people poised on the east bank of the Jordan River in what is now modern-day Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a strange request of Moses. They ask his allowance to settle where they are rather than receiving their portion in the Land of Israel.

In describing the event, the Torah notes the two tribes' abundant livestock and records their query as follows: "Enclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children (Numbers 32:16)."

Moses is disturbed by this request and sharply rebukes them. He demands that the men of Reuben and Gad fight alongside their brethren in conquest of Israel, and then continues in pointed reversal of their original statement of intention: "So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep."

Conflicting Values

Many commentators contrast the seemingly problematic request of the leaders of Reuben and Gad with Moses' incisive response. The great Torah commentator Rashi cites the Midrash that states, "They were concerned for their property more than (they were) for their sons and daughters, for they put (mention) of their livestock ahead of their children. 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 sheep." Their fundamental error, says the Midrash, was in allowing secondary values to trump primary ones. 

Reuben and Gad found themselves caught in a web of conflicting values. On the one hand they saw in Jordan marvelous pasture land, holding the promise of material bounty and a comfortable life. On the other hand God had promised them a portion in Israel, where they could truly connect to the holiness of the land and their people.

Moses viewed their initial preference--choosing pasture land and opting out of the war of conquest--as an improper resolution to their dilemma. He expected them to fight alongside the other tribes in the conquest of Israel. Furthermore, the Midrash views their final decision to settle on the east bank of the Jordan River as the reason why Reuben and Gad were eventually the first two tribes to be exiled (Midrash Tanhuma citing I Chronicles 5:26).

Material, Spiritual, Ecological

The conflict of values at play in this narrative is one that parallels tensions that many of us negotiate every day. Three particular value areas are in tension--material, spiritual, and ecological.

Most Westerners seek a relatively high material standard of living marked by ownership of a house, car, and appliances; vacations; and frequent consumption of meat and other "luxury" items.

We also feel a deep desire for spiritual fulfillment, inner peace, and a connection to the Infinite; which manifests itself in traditional religious practice, 'new age' spirituality, and a host of other forms and perspectives.

Finally, most of us sincerely value a planet in ecological balance, where the global climate is stable, species perpetuate themselves, and the ozone layer is intact, to name a few primary issues. We search for balance between these things for ourselves, but even more importantly for our children and for their children. Yet true equilibrium often escapes us.

Like the tribes of Reuben and Gad we find our material and spiritual pursuits at odds. Excessive focus on material well-being distracts us from Godly pursuits, and in the Book of Deuteronomy (8:11-14) Moses warns the children of Israel of exactly this dynamic:

"Take care...lest you eat and be satisfied and you build good houses and settle, and your cattle and flocks increase, and you increase silver and gold for yourselves, and everything that you have will increase--and your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Lord your God…"

How does this happen? What accounts for the negative correlation between material excess and awareness of the Divine? 

A Tough Balancing Act

In a world where "belief" in the power of money is a primary value, there is simply less room for belief in God as the central force in our world. Even more so, we begin to credit ourselves for our successes and dismiss God's uniquely providential role in our lives.

As the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz, Prague 1550-1619) says about Reuben and Gad, "the nature of wealth is to make its owner arrogant." Focusing too much energy on the material unbalances us, weakens our ability to focus on the spiritual, and ultimately removes us from Godly consciousness and pursuits. Thus a first step toward tikkun (repair) is acknowledging that some material aspirations can undermine spiritual ones.  

The hardship of balancing material and ecological desires is as problematic for most of us as resolving the above conflict between material and spiritual ones. A good example is global climate change. Fossil fuels are central to our standard of living in that they power the manufacture and operation of consumer goods. They are also the main driver of global climate change. International scientific consensus states that such change will very likely bring more severe storms, floods, and droughts, with major impact on human societies.

In light of this, it would seem reasonable to amend the way in which we produce and consume. Yet many of us would experience a serious reduction in fossil fuel use as inconvenient at best and seriously distressful at worst. What do we do when the lifestyle we want to live endangers the healthy functioning of the planet on which we live?

In spite of the real difficulties in resolving the dichotomies of materialism/spiritual vibrancy and materialism/ecological balance, we must constantly strive to do so. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, points out that harmonizing values which are in tension is supremely important to the spiritual life of a Jew.

He writes that "Balance…is very important…Throughout his works, the Rambam (Maimonides) stresses its importance in different areas of one's life: action, emotion, thought, one's personal, social, religious, and moral self...The Rambam (views) the element of balance as a condition of one's ideal service of God..."

Moses' rebuke of Reuben and Gad raised the two tribes' awareness about a fundamental imbalance in their worldview. He catalyzed them to change their actions. In the end they did settle the east bank of the Jordan River, but only after accompanying their Israelite brethren in the conquest of the land of Israel.

The insight Moses provided about how to prioritize values is one that we can all bring into our lives everyday. On a deep level, our values and the actions they produce determine the makeup of our lives. The return to balance is not only a move towards personal harmony, but has an impact that ripples outward into the world, from which the whole world can only benefit.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.