Parshat Matot: More money, more problems

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

When I was in college, I remember enjoying flipping through the pages of the magazine “Adbusters.” Though the editors and writers were radically anti-capitalist, their criticism of corporate advertising was creative and on-point. I remember one graphic where they had the entire alphabet spelled out graphically with the first letter of different brands, i,e., the “A” from All Clothing Detergent, the “B” from Bubblicious Bubble Gum, “C” from Cheerios, etc. Their goal was to show the reader how deeply these companies had indoctrinated us to recognize their products; it was a bit scary.

This message relates all the more so today. Consumer culture in the West is rampant, and one can lose oneself in the endless desire for purchasing. Not only that, but the consumer culture seems to have shifted from acquiring specific items, to the simple act of buying itself as the goal. It is not what we buy, but rather only that we buy. 

I’m not suggesting asceticism here, and the Jewish tradition has always utilized the things of this world towards our Divine service. But it’s important to make sure that our drive for acquisitions does not cause us to lose focus of our deeper values. 

It is this exact lesson, as relevant 3,500 years ago as it is today, that Moshe teaches in this week’s parsha.

Moshe appoints 12,000 soldiers to take revenge against the Midianites, who cynically used their daughters to seduce men in the Isralight camp to engage in illicit sexual relationships and idol worship. Am Yisrael won a decisive victory, not only taking over a large swath of territory on the East Bank of the Jordan River, but also tremendous amounts of livestock. They added over 800,000 heads to whatever livestock they had previously.

Apparently, the tribes of Reuven and Gad had especially large amounts of livestock. And the land which they had now conquered was apparently a land quite well-suited for raising livestock, and they noted this to Moshe, asking if they could stay and make it their home. 

“The land that the Lord 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).

Moshe responds with strong rebuke; would the other 10 tribes, their brothers, cross the Jordan and fight while they settled peacefully in the Land of Midian? More than that, Moshe could hear the echoes of the sin of the spies in their request. How would the rest of the nation respond when they saw that two tribes would not join them in their journey into the Promised Land?

The two tribes quickly restate their request to Moshe: we will join the military campaign in Canaan, and only then after all the land has been captured will we return to this land. But in the meantime, let us build pens for our livestock and towns for our families. 

Moshe is appeased by their restatement, but he hears another dangerous motive implicit in their request; the motive for massive financial gain at the cost of family and community. When the two tribes make their request, they first ask for pens for the sheep, and then for homes for their families. But when Moshe agrees in principle to their request, he makes an important distinction:

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

Do not let your desire for wealth poison your values, Moshe says implicitly. First build towns for your children, and only then build pens for livestock! Their consciousness had become so full with dreams of massive flocks that they confused their values. Moshe picks up on this subtlety and gives them a direct rebuke aimed at realigning their values. And just as Moshe heard their words, they now hear his words as well:

“Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead” (Bamidbar 32,27).

First they mention their families, and then their livestock. This important message is received by the two tribes (as well as half of the tribe of Menashe). And it’s one that Hillel, the Sage of the Mishna, felt was essential as well when he taught,  “marbeh nechasim, marbeh daagot.” A nice poetic translation of this is, “More coin, more cares.” A more modern translation would be, “More money, more problems.” But the original language hints towards a deeper point, one that we see in our parsha. The more wealth that we acquire, the more it fills our consciousness. And when our consciousness becomes full with the desire for acquisition, other values are pushed out of our line of sight. 

True, with training our consciousness can extend well beyond our physical needs; on Seder Night our Sages teach us that our consciousness is so broad that the night is likened today. But not every night is Seder Night. Without reminding ourselves of proper values, our lives can be driven by a narrow consciousness that only includes me and my drive to have more. This is the opposite of a spiritual and growthful drive, and not only does it leave no room for others, it leaves no room for God as well.

Of course we can’t forget the other teaching in the Ethics of our Sages, “Ain Kemach, Ain Torah.” Without wheat, without physical well-being, there can be no Torah. But there is much space between providing for our essential physical needs and having those needs turn into wants and becoming our primary driver. And with all the incredible abundance available for us today, it’s a question we all should ask ourselves: where is the line for me where I can both enjoy the fruits of my labor while staying true to my spiritual values?

What do you think? Where is the appropriate line for you in a healthy relationship with money and consumerism?

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About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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