B’nei Gad v’Reuvain asked Moshe to settle in a land that would help their livestock thrive. They said, we shall build “pens for the flock...and cities for our children” (32:16). Usually, what is most important and a priority to a person is mentioned first, and in fact, Rashi points out that the fact that they mentioned the need for shelter for their flock before cities for their children shows that they valued their possessions more than their children. Chazal thus criticize B’nei Gad v’Reuven who “made the secondary [i.e., their possessions] their primary, and the primary [i.e., their children] their secondary.”
R’ Henoch Leibowitz asks: How could it be that these extremely pious people cared more about their possessions than their children? R’ Leibowitz says that we must explain that originally they of course valued their children more than their possessions. However, since most of their time was spent amassing wealth (for the sake of their children), over time they became more concerned for their possessions than their children.
Everyone would agree that children and their wellbeing are the priority, and working to sustain them (and ourselves) is only a means to an end. Yet, we see from here the nature (that existed even in people of tremendous spiritual stature) of over time becoming so consumed in the “means” to the point that it ends up becoming an end and a goal unto itself—no longer tied to engaging in it for the sake of enhancing the means! It may even become so much of an end that it trumps the original goal (i.e., the children’s wellbeing). Hence, care arises in ensuring an awareness of this ironic nature in that when fending for the wellbeing of our children, that those pursuits not cause a neglect of the children’s wellbeing.
Pirkei Avot (chap.1) says “make your Torah fixed,” and Rambam explains that this means that Torah study is to be our primary goal. We can thus perhaps suggest that it’s not necessarily a matter of how much time during the day is spent on Torah study, but rather, how much of your heart during the day is aspiring to be able to learn. In other words, is Torah your primary goal. Hence, someone who for most of the day is occupied can also perhaps fulfill this dictum if his yearning is to grow in Torah, for the work is only the means to this end. However, here too a slippery slope of work becoming the end and thereby causing a neglect of Torah can easily become a reality.
This potential of the means turning into an end, and in turn adversely impacting the reason we set out on a given pursuit, doesn’t just exist on an individual level, but can also pervade the emotional framework of an entire society. In the end of Parshat Noach, we read about a generation who were “peace-loving” people and were a personification of achdut (see Rashi, Bereishit 11:9). They decided to build a city and a tower “to make a name for ourselves lest we become separated” (Bereishit 11:4)—so they wouldn’t lose their cherished achdut. Yet, the midrash records an astonishing behavior that occured in middle of the construction: When a person would fall from the building and die, they wouldn’t pay attention to it; but when a brick would fall, they would literally “sit and mourn” the loss of this brick! How could such a thing be? Didn’t they love each other, and wasn’t the building for the sake of perpetuating the betterment of their society? R’ Zelig Pliskin explains that this shows how a person’s original goal can become lost, and instead the project to reach the goal becomes the goal itself. The goal was to help the people, and the project of the building was only a means. Yet the means became the end, to the point that it turned against the whole reason why they set out to build the building in the first place. How ironic is it that their goal was for the sake of enhancing life that they genuinely cherished, but after a while their means to get there became the ultimate goal so much so that at a certain point they didn’t care about life.
As a “society” of Jewish people, our goal is “kavod shamayim,” to bring honor to Hashem, to reveal Hashem’s presence and majesty in our lives and other people’s lives, to help each other to reach our potential in emunah, etc. However, during this time in our history there was rampant sinat chinam, and this caused enough dishonor to Hashem that He had the second Beit Hamikdash destroyed. Surprisingly, the Gemara (Yoma 9b) says that that generation was engaged in Torah, mitzvot and even acts of kindness, and yet they had sinat chinam! How do these two realities coexist? How can a generation steeped in such good also be bearing sinat chinam? Perhaps we can explain a phenomenon that may ring true in our days as well. As independent thinkers and high achievers we may create our own projects, systems, establishments and “hashkafot” that we believe will help others and bring an ultimate kavod shamayim. Yet, one might get so caught up in these “means” and begin to believe that it’s this way, or no way, and thus begin to look down upon others (and come to hate those) who don’t conform to their set of rules and ways of “kavod shamayim.” Hence, these means can become the end, and although they were originally created for the sake of enhancing people, they in turn may cause a disliking of other people.
Reflecting on what our priorities are, and what we are here for, may help us retain and maintain the balance between the means and ends of our personal lives and the lives of our nation as a whole, thus bringing back what once was a thriving unity in Am Yisrael.
Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected]