In Parshas Matos, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moses as they are about to enter the Promised Land and request that their designated shares of land be in the strip of land bordering the Jordan River. The land there was very fruitful, and was an ideal place to raise the abundance of cattle they possessed.
The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabboh, 22:9) applies the following verse from Ecclesiastes to this dialogue between Moses and the two tribes, (10:2), “The heart of the wise one is to his right and the heart of a fool is to his left.”
The Medrash says the tribes of Reuven and Gad were “left-hearted,” because they first requested that they be allowed to stay to build pens for their animals, and afterwards they mentioned building homes for their families. This sequence implied that the livestock was of a primary concern while caring for their families was secondary.
However, Moses was “right-hearted,” and in his reply he first mentioned that they may build homes for their families, and then he said they can build pens for their animals. Moses was telling them that they must not confuse their priorities. Caring for their families comes before taking care of the animals.
This Medrash calls for further explanation. We can understand the criticism for making preserving one’s wealth a priority over caring for his family. But what is intended by labeling such a person as “left-hearted” versus Moses who is labeled as “right-hearted” for keeping the priorities in line? What is the lesson Ecclesiastes is teaching us for which this episode is quoted as an example?
Rabbi Aharon Kotler explains that the members of these tribes certainly did not act in a way which gave precedence to tending to their wealth before their families. We can be sure that they were upstanding people with the highest principles of character and would not think of actually neglecting their families for the sake of monetary concerns. But the fact that when talking they happened to mention their concern for their animals before mentioning caring for their families, was a revelation of some faulty attitude lingering in their hearts. Even though in action they would prioritize their families and would never consider doing anything to care for their possessions at the expense of their families, it is not enough to have such principles in practice. The Torah demands that the heart of a person be in line as well.
A person can know intellectually what is right and act accordingly, while deep in his heart he feels differently. This is what Ecclesiastes is teaching us and what the Medrash is stressing. A wise person does not suffice with keeping his actual deeds in line. A wise person pays attention to his heart and works to make sure that his heart is also in line with the values of the Torah. A fool, on the other hand, may fool himself into thinking he is righteous because he acts according to the principles of the Torah, but he is “left-hearted” because he neglects to address the attitudes he has deep in his heart. The members of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, deep in their hearts, had some level of greed which surpassed their feelings of concern towards their families. This delicate nuance surfaced in their sequence of speech, and therefore they are labeled as “left-hearted.” Moses, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. He had his priorities in line through and through on every level, and therefore he is an example of one who is “right-hearted.”
Rabbi Kotler stresses that this is not a minor issue, but a very significant factor in a person’s character, as the verse says, (Proverbs 23:26) “Give Me, My son, your heart,” and the Talmud says (Sanhedrin 106b), “God desires one’s heart.”
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz shares a fascinating account he once experienced. When he was a young boy studying in Yeshivah (school for Talmud study), a fire once broke out that consumed a few houses near the Yeshivah. One of the older and most respected students confided to him that while the fire was raging, he sensed a small voice inside him, wishing that the Yeshivah would burn down too so that he would have an excuse to go home and spend time with his family.
He wanted to show the young Yerucham how corrupt a person’s feelings can run deep inside unless they are detected and worked upon. This concept can be very tricky. It takes introspection and great honesty to dig deep into your heart and see where your heart really stands regarding its true desires and priorities. Even if we act as the Torah expects from us, it is not enough. We must work on shaping our hearts to mold to the priorities and values of the Torah. God wants us to be “right hearted;” to see that our attitudes and values, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, are in line with the Torah view.
Parshas Matos by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber (firstname.lastname@example.org)