The conclusion of the Torah reading relates how the members of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moses with a request. Instead of entering the land of Israel with their brethren, they preferred to settle in the lands conquered by the Jews on the eastern bank of the Jordan. That land was good grazing land; they had many sheep and they wanted to settle there.

Moses was aghast. He had shepherded the people for forty years, nurturing them to the point where they would be ready to enter the Holy Land. Now that the moment had almost arrived, and suddenly, a considerable portion of the people weren’t interested. Moreover, their lack of interest could be infectious, deterring the entire people from entering the land.

Moses voiced his concerns quite forcefully and the members of those tribes comprehended the negative consequences that could arise. On the other hand, they really wanted to settle in those lands. So they offered a compromise. They would enter the land of Israel as the vanguard of the Jewish people and they would stay there until the land was conquered and divided. Only afterwards would they return to their land in Transjordan.

Moses understood that this approach would not dishearten the people as a whole, so he accepted it. But the question arises: He was the shepherd of the entire people. Why did he give up on two entire tribes and indeed, invite half of another tribe, the tribe of Menashe, to join them on the other side of the Jordan?

To resolve this question, we have to understand the uniqueness of a shepherd’s tasks. Of all the ways of earning a livelihood available in Biblical times, shepherding was the most peaceful. A shepherd spent his time peacefully watching his flocks. He had time to think and to meditate. In that way, he was not bogged down with material concerns.

Judaism needs such people. On the other hand, it also — and primarily — needs people who are in the business of making things happen. Whether in agriculture or in commerce, the main bulk of the people have to produce.

This is not only an economic perspective; it is a spiritual one. G‑d created the world so that He could have a dwelling in the lower realms, that our material world be made into a home for Him. To accomplish that objective, He needs people ready to be involved in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day realities. On the other hand, were everyone to follow that course, there might not be anyone who would see past those realities.

This was the core of the compromise suggested by the tribes of Reuven and Gad. The people at large would be involved in the Jews’ primary mission of establishing a dwelling for G‑d through involving themselves in mundane activities. They themselves, however, would be involved in the more contemplative, pastoral lifestyle of shepherds. And they would work to make sure that a connection between the two was maintained so that the spiritual awareness they attained could be shared by the people at large.

Looking to the Horizon

Parshas Mattos is always read in the Three Weeks, the period of semi-mourning associated with the destruction of the Temple. In that vein, our Sages relate: “A lion ascended — this refers to Nebuchadnezzar — in [the month with] the sign of a lion — the fifth month (Av) — and destroyed Ariel — “the lion of G‑d” (the Temple) — so that a lion — this refers to G‑d — will come in [the month with] the sign of a lion and rebuild Ariel, for it is written: ‘I will transform your mourning to rejoicing’ and it is written: ‘G‑d will rebuild Zion and gather in the dispersed remnant of Israel.’”

One of the labors forbidden on the Sabbath is destroying a building. Our Sages question this ruling, noting that one is not liable for any labor performed with a destructive intent. They explain that, in truth, the forbidden labor for which one is liable on the Sabbath is not simple, wanton destruction, but destroying with intent to rebuild. For then the destruction is not the goal, but the rebuilding that takes place afterwards. Hence, the destruction is considered as a positive activity.

Now if the lion ascending and destroying the Temple is so that “the lion — the Holy One, blessed be He — will come and rebuild” the Temple, the destruction is, in essence, not a negative act. Certainly, it’s tragic and must be mourned, but it is a phase in a process, not an ultimate goal.

Moreover, in the present era, when it is possible to sense the advent of the Future Redemption, we can proceed forward with confidence and joy, watching as the light of Mashiach continues to draw closer and anxiously anticipating the rebuilding of the Temple.