This week we read the double Sedra Mattot – Massei and together they form the final part of Bamidbar, a curiously fragmented record of historical events, religious obligations and duties.
Mattot is translated as “tribes” but can also mean a stick or a staff. Gad, Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh want to separate themselves by settling on the east of the Jordan There is a midrash that, just as a stick, fractured from a living tree, will wither, this was going to be the fate of those who were to go on to be the first lost Tribes.
The Sedra begins with the laws governing the annulment of vows or promises. We, as a people, tend to disapprove of vows: even marriage is not an exchange of vows; it is the giving of a ring. When the tribes asked Moses to settle to the east of the river, they promised that before joining the other tribes in battle
We will build fenced-in enclosures for our cattle and cities for our young children.
Moses only agrees if they
Build cities for your young children and fenced-in enclosures for your cattle
Moses’ implied rebuke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad is not a minor historical detail but a fundamental statement of Jewish priorities. Property is secondary, children primary. Civilisations that put families before possessions will prosper.