When we last left our heroes, the B’nei Yisroel, they had captured the east side of the Jordan and punished Midian for their dastardly act against them. Now, as Moshe Rabbenu prepares to deliver his final instructions and charge to the people, the tribes of Reuven and Gad appear with an unusual request. It seems they have a lot of cattle. A really lot of cattle. And the east side of the Jordan is perfect for cattle. Therefore they request to forsake their portion in the Land of Israel and stay where they are, in cattle country.
Moshe is terribly distressed. Had they forgotten the story of the meraglim and how their fathers had all died in the desert without ever having the privilege of entering Eretz Yisroel? Were they in fact proposing a second breach of Hashem’s instructions and disheartening B’nei Yisroel from fighting the battles that stood before them? Reuven and Gad assured Moshe that they had no intention of shirking their responsibility. They would serve as the vanguard of the B’nei Yisroel and fight with all their strength to capture Eretz Yisroel. They just wouldn’t live there. To this Moshe, with Hashems approval agrees. Fine, if you don’t want to live in Eretz Yisroel you don’t have to. Just don’t dishearten the rest of the people in their battles.
There is an obvious problem with this story, which the Rosh Yeshiva of Slobadka, Rav Yitchok Izaak Sher asks in his usual devastating manner. Reuven and Gad were giving up their portions in Eretz Yisroel, their right to live in the land promised to them by Hashem, the land of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov – because they had a lot of cows? You give up Eretz Yisroel for cows? Now granted, it’s difficult till this day to get a really good steak here, but of all the excuses I’ve heard why people don’t make aliyah, that one has never come up. You turn down Eretz Yisroel for cows? Moshe should have responded, no problem. Shecht them all, bring them as Korbenei Shelamim, and we’ll have the biggest bar-be-que on the range. Then you won’t have to worry about the cows and you can march triumphantly into the land where, as the possuk says, you can live in houses you didn’t build and eat from vineyards you didn’t plant and drink from wells you didn’t dig. Instead Moshe, and for that matter Hashem, has no complaint as long as they do their duty to their people.
I think the answer to this question provides us with a fundamental understanding of how to approach life. The tribes of Reuven and Gad realize that they have a lot of cattle. An unusual amount of cattle. Dare I say it, a supernatural amount of cattle. Why, they wonder, did Hashem give us so many cows? To shecht them? To avoid using this gift from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, or to use them properly and do the will of Hashem? That is what these two shevatim realized. If Hashem gave them these cows, then He wanted them to use them.
Suddenly they realize that Hashem had given the east bank of the Jordan to the B’nei Yisroel. Someone was supposed to get it. They weren’t going to rent it out. Reuven and Gad reasoned that this land which was good for cattle was meant to be their home. That was why they made the request and that’s why the request was accepted, provided of course that they returned the favor and helped the other tribes to capture their lands.
Don’t all of us have special gifts that Hashem gave us to use in the world? Why would it ever occur to us to squander them? Won’t we be held responsible for everything Hashem gave us and be called to account for how well we used them in this world? That is what the chazal mean when they tell us that tzaddikim value their money more than their lives. Because their lives are here to use everything that Hashem gave them to the best of their abilities.
There is a story in the gemera that is difficult to understand. Rabbi Shimon Bar Chalafta is walking down the street when he is suddenly atacked by a lion. He davens to Hashem and lo and behold – a miracle! Meat falls from the sky and the lion eats some of it and leaves. Rebbi Shimon Bar Chalafta then gathers the leftover meat together and brings it to the Bais Medrash to find out if it is Kosher. The psak is that everything that comes from the heavens is Kosher (it had the yud K vav K).
Now let me ask you, if you were walking down the street and meat fell out of the sky and saved your life, would your question be whether you could take it home and make hamburger? Wouldn’t you preserve it and show your grandchildren the miracle meat that fell from the sky and saved your life? The difference is, we’re foolish enough to think that the meat we buy from the butcher is regular meat. Unless something falls from the sky, we don’t realize it’s a gift from Hashem. But the truth is, whether something comes to us through natureal means or supernatural means – it’s all from Hashem. Every single little thing we are given is a challenge and a responsibility to see what we will do with it.
Reuven and Gad weren’t prepared to shirk their responsibility. They understood that if Hashem gave me something, I have to use it to the best of my ability. And I have no right to cast it away.
When I was teaching in Los Angeles over twenty years ago, I had a student whose father was a talent agent. He heard one of my shiurim and, obviously impressed by the Torah content, offered to get me a job writing for a television sitcom. Now to tell you the truth, it was a heavy decision. Fame and fortune on one side (obviously in Chinuch) and a life of meaning on the other. It was the kind of moment that people fantasize about and now it had become a reality. For me it meant I had to sit down and decide what was really important in my life.
So I pictured myself at 120 (probably closer to 56) standing before Hakadosh Boruch Hu. “Well,” He says to me, “give me an account of your life”. “Well,” I say, “have you ever seen ‘Sanford & Son’? How about ‘Mork and Mindy’? As it happens, I wrote those shows”. “And?” “And? Those were hits! You never heard of me?” Hashem would look at me and say, “after all the talent and ability I gave you to give over Torah ideas, that’s the best you could do with them? Distract people from their meaningless lives instead of helping them have meaningful lives?”
Everyone has been given gifts by Hakadosh Boruch Hu. No one has a right to throw those gifts away. We have to use them to help sanctify Hashem in this world. And if we shecht them or abandon them, what will we answer at 120 when Hashem asks us “I gave you such special gifts to use, to accomplish something in the world that no one else could have. Did you use your powers of organization to help Torah mosdos accomplish their goals, or did you squander them rearranging your sock drawer and putting your fruits and vegetables away in alphabetical order? Did you use your skills as the hostess with the mostest to impress your friends or to show people the beauty of a shabbos with all of the trimmings? Did your gift for argumentation help create courtroom drama, or unravel the confused arguments of those in need of help? And if you have been blessed with the gifts of empathy and the ability to listen, did you take the time to open yourself to those whose pains and problems needed an open heart and ear?
Reuven and Gad wanted Eretz Yisroel, but they wanted more to do Hashems will. That has to be our motivation - not just doing what we want but doing what needs to be done. The Chazal tell us that there are billions of people on our small planet, and they all look different. That’s because each one is unique and blessed with a special gift. Our challenge is to discover our unique gifts and use them in the service of Hashem. And then we will be zocheh to Mashiach and see the Bais HaMikdash rebuilt in our time and then I’ll tell you where you can get a really good steak.