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Divrei Torah on the weekly portions

BeMidbar: Matot

Family Wealth

“The Reuvenites and the Gadites had a very large number of cattle … and they said: We will build sheepfolds here (outside the land of Israel) for our cattle and cities for our children … and Moshe said: Build cities for your children and then folds for your sheep” (BeMidbar 32:1,16,24).

Rashi comments that the Reuvenites and the Gadites mentioned their wealth ahead of their children, but Moshe rebuked them: What is of primary significance should be first, i.e. build cities for your children, and what is secondary should come later, i.e. then folds for your sheep!

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Vilna wonders how could the Reuvenites and the Gadites make such a blatant mistake as to prioritise their cattle over their children? Didn’t they realise that family is much more important than wealth?

The Gemara (Taanit 21a) records that the famous Nachum Ish Gam Zu was severely disabled, and lived in a dilapidated building. His students, fearing his house was about to collapse, asked permission to remove his bed (with Nachum lying on it) and then take out the furniture, but Nachum said: “First remove the furniture, and afterwards my bed, because as long as I’m in the house it will not cave in!” So, they took out the furniture and then his bed; then the house fell down!

His students inquired: “Rabbi, since you are completely righteous, why did God let you become so ill?” Nachum replied: “My dear students, I brought it upon myself! I was once journeying with my three donkeys laden with food, drink and delicacies when a poor man approached me and said: “My master, feed me.” I replied: “Wait while I unload the donkey.” I hadn’t finished unloading when the poor man died! I fell down upon him and said: “Let my eyes which did not have pity on your eyes be blinded; let my hands which did not show consideration for your hands be stumped through sickness; etc.””

But how could Nachum instruct his students to remove the furniture first, thereby prolonging his stay in the rickety house, reasoning that so long as he remained inside the house it could not collapse? Surely it is forbidden to rely on a miracle (Gemara Pesachim 64b)?

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef elucidates that Nachum did this in order to show his students the power of charity! He was afraid the students wouldn’t believe that his suffering was caused solely by his short delay once in giving charity. So, he had to demonstrate that he was completely righteous, by purposely relying on the miracle that the house would not fall down, to avert any suspicion that his suffering was due to other sins he may have committed.

Nevertheless, why insist that the students remove the furniture prior to removing his bed? Wouldn’t the house remain standing while either Nachum or his furniture was still inside? The answer is that Nachum could not be sure that a miracle would be performed for his possessions, because the Gemara (Bava Kama 2b) states that only people have a protective angel.

Now, the Reuvenites and the Gadites knew that in the past forty years of wandering in the desert they had experienced a life full of miracles and so they first said “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle” because their cattle would not warrant a miraculous protection. Only afterwards did they mention “cities for our children”. Moshe corrected them though, because from now on they would lead a natural existence and therefore the top priority would certainly be to build cities for the children! Sheepfolds would be much less important.

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