In this week’s Torah portion we read that the tribes of Reuben and Gad (later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh) ask for the lands east of the Jordan River, these being prime pastureland for their cattle. Moses is initially angered by the request, concerned that they are not willing to help their brethren in the battle to conquer the Land of Israel. In response, Reuben and Gad propose that they first join, and be the advance troops in, Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.

We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here, and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel . . . We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance. (Numbers 32:16–18)

They assumed that their ability to care for their children was predicated on how many sheep they ownedMoses then responds in agreement, but changes the order of their projected construction project:

Build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep, and what has proceeded from your mouth you shall do. (Ibid. 32:24)

They were more concerned about their possessions than about their sons and daughters, since they mentioned their livestock before their children. Moses said to them, “Not so! Treat the fundamental as a fundamental, and the secondary as secondary. First build cities for your children, and afterwards enclosures for your sheep.” (Rashi’s commentary on this verse)

The tribes had put sheep first, then children. But can it then be that that they actually loved their sheep more than their children?

Rather, it seems to me that they made the assumption that their ability to care for their children was predicated on how many sheep they owned—their financial situation. Hence they were always putting their economic involvement first. To this Moses responded: “Worry about your children first; the ‘sheep’ come last.” Ultimately it is G‑d who provides sustenance. We have to work, and work hard, but we are only creating a vessel, and then G‑d fills the vessel we create with our toil.

The implication is obvious. Very often, there are so many things we do not do with our children because of the scheduling demands of our professions and businesses. To this Moses responds: “First things first! Devote yourself to the needs of your children—in particular, their spiritual needs—and the ‘sheep’ will happen. To bring children into the world and care for them—that is your mission. For your work to bear fruit, that’s G‑d’s job.” (This after we actually toil and make the “vessel”; no “thumb-twiddling” is being advocated here.)

We must first—in the sense of priority—as mothers and fathers, see what our children need of us physically and spiritually, and only then we turn to our “sheep”—our economic lives.