A constant theme in Jewish teaching is the interface between spirituality and life, between idealistic dreams and harsh reality. The clash between these two dimensions, and the attempt to find a resolution of the problem, is expressed in an incident in the Torah reading of Matot (Numbers 30:2–32:42).

After forty years wandering in the desert, the Jewish people were camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Soon they will cross the Jordan and conquer the Land of Israel. Now a group of two tribes (Reuben and Gad) approached Moses and made a request. “We have flocks of sheep,” they said. “The area where we are on the east of the Jordan is good sheep country. Let us stay here instead of crossing the Jordan.”

Moses’ reaction was extreme concern. He saw this as a replay of the argument with the spies some forty years previously, when the people claimed that it would be better not to enter the Land. The request to remain east of the Jordan seemed similar. However, after a discussion with the two tribes, Moses agreed. As long as they helped the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the area west of the Jordan, everything would be fine.

What is happening here? What are the real issues?

Chassidic commentaries explain that the generation of the spies did not want to enter the Land, because they preferred the spirituality of the desert. There they could feel close to G‑d. They did not have to work for their livelihood: the manna from heaven and the water from the rock supplied their physical needs. Going into the Land would mean plowing and reaping, and all the humdrum activities of daily life. So they preferred to remain in the desert. This overbalancing in favor of the purely spiritual was condemned by G‑d.

When the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked to be able to stay on the east bank of the Jordan where they could graze their sheep, it seemed to be the same kind of claim. The sages tell us the reason why many of our ancestors (including the Patriarchs and the sons of Jacob) were sheep farmers is because this activity enabled them to maintain a spiritual frame of mind, far from the hurly-burly of the city.

At first Moses was upset by this request. It was another case of rejection of the reality of life. Yet then he came to terms with it. Why?

The generation of the spies wanted the entire Jewish people to remain in a spiritual world. By contrast, the two tribes were a minority. Further, they agreed that they would cross the Jordan in order to help the rest of the Jewish people conquer the Land. This means they accepted that their spirituality was for the benefit of others. Moses was then able to approve their plan.

In our own time, there are people who are primarily active in the world of commerce and the professions, while there are others who devote themselves to the spiritual dimension of life, and studying Torah is their prime activity. The presence of these two groups, those active in the practical world and the scholars, is a time-honored feature of the Jewish community. (In general society, too, there are many full-time academic scholars.)

Sometimes the question is raised whether the Torah scholar is, in some sense, “escaping” from the real world. The lesson of the parshah is that if the scholars see that their true purpose is fulfilled by helping others, by communicating Torah knowledge and inspiration to them, then they are not escapists at all. Instead they are helping to combine the spiritual and the practical, to make the reality of this world into a true dwelling for the divine.1