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Home » Matot

Matot Masei: Purposeful Living

Submitted by on July 8, 2007 – 4:44 amNo Comment | 6,808 views


The purpose of wealth is power, the purpose of power is freedom and the purpose of freedom is what?  There must be  more to life than just this. But if there is, what is it?

Before our ancestors entered the promised land they conquered Emor and Bashan, lands on the eastern bank of the Jordan river. Because these lands were especially lush and perfectly suited for pasture, the two tribes, Gad and Reuben, who were particularly laden with livestock, requested to be settled in these areas. (1)

Moses replied, “Should your brothers go to war while you sit here?” It is inconceivable that ten tribes should fight for their country while two tribes enjoy the accouterments of wealth. Indeed, the purpose of life is not to amass wealth, but to live our morals and principles.

Thomas Jefferson said it best when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. “All men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He wrote that when such rights are threatened we ought to “pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” in their support,  “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine providence”.

Indeed, fortunes, honor and our very lives pale in comparison to our principles. If we neglect our principles, what are we left with? This is what Moses meant when he rebuked those tribes; how can you  worry about your fortunes and look after your livestock while your brothers go to war? Where is your patriotic duty? Where is your national loyalty? (2)


Gad and Reuben humbly accepted Moses’ rebuke and proclaimed their willingness to join their brothers in war.

“We’ll build enclosures for our livestock and cities for our children… we’ll then arm ourselves and lead the children of Israel in war until we’ve brought them to their place…. We’ll not return to our homes until each member of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.” (3)

Sounds like they learned their lesson, right? Well, not yet. Moses wasn’t satisfied and took them to task yet again. He was impressed with their new found war ethic. When their brothers went to war they would not sit back with equanimity, but he was now alarmed with their peace ethic.

They stipulated that they would (first) build enclosures for their livestock and (then) cities for their children. Without intending to, they unwittingly indicated their order of priorities. How could they worry about their livestock before looking after the needs of their children? No, said Moses. That is wrong. “Build  cities for your children (first) and (then) enclosures for your sheep.” (4)

People often inquire after my family’s health. When I assure them that my family is well, thank G-d, they usually reply, “Ah, good. That’s the most important thing.” I have a friend, who always reiterates life’s three important priorities. “Health, family and happiness. And in that order!” He then often adds,  “If your family is healthy, you have reason to be happy. You hear me boychik?”

Priority Structure

It seems we have our priorities all straightened out. In times of peace our first priorities are our health and family. Ensuring our happiness is our third priority. Amassing wealth and treasures comes in a distant fourth. “Money,” as the saying goes, “doesn’t buy happiness.”

There are also overarching principles that surpass life’s normal priorities. They are freedom, loyalty, justice, patriotism, equality and the like. To defend these values we are prepared to pledge our fortune, happiness and even safety. purposeful living - innerstreamWe are prepared to pledge our honor and our very lives to defend  these overarching principles. If necessary, we are prepared to go to war.

If the tribes of Gad and Reuben were to articulate these priorities and if it were up to us, we would have endorsed their philosophy and approve their request. Moses, however, still wasn’t satisfied. He felt  there was still a missing element in their attitude toward life. An  element so crucial as to leave their entire philosophy lacking. Their request could not be approved until this one last issue was resolved.


What is the purpose of life? Freedom, loyalty and equality are all important; after all, they ensure our safety. Health, family and happiness are also important; they ensure that our lives are worth living. But to what end? Why is living important? Of course we don’t want to suffer, no one wishes that upon humanity, but there must be more to life than the avoidance of suffering and the pursuit of happiness?

What is greater than life that makes life worth living?

When the tribes of Gad and Reuben offered to lead their brothers in war they unwittingly revealed their philosophy of life. They said, “we’ll arm ourselves and lead the children of Israel in war .” In reply Moses stipulated that they must “arm themselves before G-d.” Not before Israel, but before G-d. (3)

The purpose of conquering the Holy Land was to liberate it from those, who had contaminated it with their contemptible behavior and populate it with those who lived by the Torah’s divine code. This war was not only about providing the Jewish nation with a homeland, it was chiefly about liberating the holy land from spiritual contamination. This was not a battle for the Jewish people, but a battle for G-d. (5)

This battle takes place not only in Israel, but throughout the world. Life should not be the purpose of living, but the living of purpose. This inner battle is fought against ourselves. We fight our inclination toward self indulgence and self absorption. We fight to live for G-d rather than for ourselves. (6)

G-d’s purpose is that we raise our lives, our discourse and our culture to a more exalted level. That we infuse the physical with an awareness of the spiritual and that we suffuse all of creation with the presence of G-d. This is achieved through living every day surrounded by physical treasures and pleasures, yet harnessing those pleasures to the service of G-d. (7)

Gold is a commodity we all enjoy, yet our sages taught that gold was created to beautify the temple. (8)  Just like the temple’s gold, each of our possessions and energies could be utilized in the service of G-d.  Remembering G-d amidst luxury and pleasure is difficult. Then again, this is the inner war to which Moses was alluding and wars are never easy.

It was only when the tribes of Gad and Reuben pledged to do battle before G-d that Moses  granted their request. Only when they proclaimed their intention to bring the ethos of Torah and its message of purpose to the lands that they hoped to inherit, did Moses approve their request. (9)


  1. Numbers Chapter 32.
  2. This is why Moses told them that theirs was a culture of sin, words that at first blush seem harsh. A culture that permits people to dismiss the causes for which their brothers fight and the loss of their bothers’ lives in war, a culture that permits one to grow callous, hardened and absorbed completely in self is a culture of sin.
  3. Numbers 32: 17-18.
  4. Numbers 32:20 and 27.
  5. Leviticus 18; 24-30.
  6. A rabbi once summoned his Russian coachman to ask him for the purpose of life. The coachman replied, “to enjoy a schnapps and an accompanying piece of herring.” The rabbi then asked his Jewish assistant the same question to which the assistant replied, “to fulfill the will of G-d.” Iggrot Kodesh Maharyatz (R. YY Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch 1880-1950) VII p. 70.
  7. See http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=113881 for a beautiful illustration of this concept.
  8. Bereishis Rabbah, 16:2.
  9. This essay is based in part on commentary of the Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, Russia 1809-1879) on Numbers 32: 20.

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