Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Matot/Masei- Dealing with Disappointment
It’s probably one of the most underrated interactions in the entire Torah- and in order to truly understand the emotions behind it, we need to grasp the entire picture.
The fundamental mission with which Moshe Rabbeinu was entrusted as he began his leadership role in Sefer Shemot was to take Am Yisrael out of Egypt and lead them into Eretz Yisrael, the land of their birthright and inheritance. They were to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, make that land their own, and create there a society built upon avodat Hashem. Throughout their wanderings in the desert, which included numerous delays and detours, Hashem and Moshe consistently rally the nation with the promise of their dramatic journey to the promised land- a destination that had become the destiny of both the nation and their extraordinary leader.
As year forty in the desert commences, Moshe commits a regrettable sin, resulting in G-d’s decree that he will not merit entry into Eretz Yisrael — a dramatic, tragic twist in Moshe’s personal life and in the nation’s experience. We can only imagine the deep disappointment and frustration that Moshe must have felt at this news-a huge part of his personal destiny could no longer be realized. This sense of despair on Moshe’s part is highlighted in the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan, as Moshe begs G-d to let him step foot and experience this great land, if only for a minute- a request that God denies. Ultimately, Moshe is forced to accept his new reality, one in which his prime student Yehoshua will lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps Moshe comes to understand that his own legacy will not be defined simply by what he personally accomplishes, but by the continued accomplishments of the nation as well- as their success becomes his success as well. Although he will not personally the land, Moshe realizes that leading Am Yisrael to the edge of the land, and enabling their entry, are accomplishments that will serve as incredible testaments to his legacy.
With that background, we can now truly understand and appreciate the conversation that takes place in this week’s parsha between Moshe and the tribes of Reuvein, Gad, and half of Menashe. The tribes approach Moshe with a request- that rather than receive their land portion within the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, they be allowed to remain on the other side of the Jordan river, on land recently conquered from Sichon and Bashan. The Torah even outlines the practical reason for this request- these tribes possessed abundant cattle, and the land they requested was particularly spacious and lush.
While, at first glance, the request of these tribes might seem relatively fair, given our knowledge of the background, we can only imagine how Moshe must have felt upon hearing their request. The one person whose sole remaining wish is to step foot into the promised land _ to the point that he begs G-d for that opportunity — is now approached by three tribes who are to be given what he can only wish for, and they want to give it up!? The irony of their request, davka to Moshe Rabbeinu and specifically at this time, cannot be overstated. We can almost feel the maddening frustration burning up inside Moshe, to a point where we expect him to scream- “Are you guys crazy?! Don’t you get what you are asking to give up!? I would do anything to have the opportunity that you have been given- how can you flippantly dismiss it, regardless of the reason?! Are you aware of the mistake you are making?”
And yet, if we look at Moshe’s response to the tribes’ request- it is both instructive and enlightening. Rather than allowing his emotions to get the better of him, and actively criticizing them for their lack of values and appreciation, he answers them in an extremely insightful and educationally powerful way.
Firstly, he responds with facts and intellect rather than emotion. While he makes it clear that he strongly disagrees with their request, he argues against it from a practical perspective, and not an emotional one. He objects to their request on two levels- number one, he questions the fairness of their not joining their brother and sisters in conquering the land. Number two, he reminds the tribes of what occurred thirty-nine years ago when the nation refused to enter the land, and of the resulting disastrous punishment. He then argues that their request could easily result in a similar sin and punishment- with equally disastrous results for all involved.
Once the tribes respond to his objections, Moshe switches tactics. Recognizing their determination to follow their own proposed path and realizing that he will not be able to change their mind — he chooses to help them succeed by focusing their attention on the values and ideals that will be essential to their success. Even then, he encourages these values in a thoughtful, rather than, forceful way. As Rashi famously points out: In their initial proposal, the three tribes prioritize their cattle before their children- and when Moshe’s responds, he deliberately switches the order to stress the children before the cattle. Moshe thus teaches these tribes a critical lesson of priorities- yet the way he does it is as instructive as the lesson itself. Rather than deriding the tribal representatives for their lack of proper priorities, he speaks to them in a way that doesn’t embarrass or humiliate. He simply shows them proper perspective in a positive fashion. Moshe understands that if he wants to have any chance at influencing how the three tribes will act, his words need to come from a place of love and concern- not from a place of criticism and condemnation. Ultimately, Moshe navigates this encounter brilliantly. While he clearly disapproves of the tribes’ initial request- once he becomes convinced of the inevitability of their actions, he successfully ensures that the events will unfold in the most productive way possible.
As parents, we have many hopes and aspirations for our children and clear opinions as to how their lives should unfold. What happens, however, when a child makes decisions that run counter to those hopes and values? What if we believe that he/she is making a huge mistake? Our natural reaction may be to respond emotionally, with anger and frustration at the fact that our child feels differently than we do about such critical issues. Moshe’s thoughtful response, however, can serve as an important model for us, guiding our response to these situations. As Moshe did, we must ultimately, recognize each child’s prerogative to their own thoughts and value system. While we have every right to be disappointed at the situation when we disagree with their decisions — as we can imagine Moshe was at the request of the three tribes — we must consider what reaction will be the most productive. Rather than responding to the situation emotionally, we should try to discuss the issues with them rationally. We should first explain to them why we feel they are making a mistake, and how our life experiences and values might help inform their situation. And… if ultimately they choose to continue on their chosen path, our role at that point is to be as supportive and helpful as we can be, while trying to gently influence their path in the most productive way possible.
All parents deal with disappointments regarding their children at some point in time — just as all leaders will inevitably experience disappointment regarding those whom they lead at some point, as well. The masterful and thoughtful way that Moshe navigates a potentially emotionally charged situation with the tribes of Reuvein, Gad, and Menashe can serve a wonderful model for us to learn from, as we strive to deal with similar situations in our lives, as well.