Finish What You Start
Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. He also said that “Nothing happens until something moves.” Indeed, constant movement seems to be the essence of everything. This is one of the few empirical truths we should also consider as normative. To stop, to do nothing, is a fundamental violation of the principle that governs the entire universe. If you violate this principle, if you stop, you won’t have to wait long for the consequences.
In the story from this week’s parasha, two of the Israelite tribes did, in fact, try to stop short. After settling in the favorable piece of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, Reubenites and Gadites decided that they didn’t have to conquer the Promised Land, that they could just stay where they were – it was good enough:
The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:1-5)
Upon hearing their plea, Moses rebukes them saying that they were committing the same sin as the Isrealites when they took the advice of the spies who, after exploring the Promised Land, discouraged all the people of Israel from conquering it, which resulted in God punishing them with an additional 40 years of wandering in the desert.
After Moses reminded them of this punishment (Num 32:10-14), the Gadites and Reubenites humble themselves under the Divine “threat”. They assure both Moses and God that although they will secure the well-being of their families and flocks in territories already conquered on the eastern side of the Jordan river, they will join their brethren in the conquest of “the core part” of the Promised Land, located on the west side of the river. The promise they make ultimately dismisses the Divine wrath.
This Divine anger is a punishment that happens when we withdraw from an effort, and this is how the story can be understood today. The principle of the story being: never stop halfway along the path you have taken, even if what you have achieved is satisfying enough. Be true to your original goals and intentions and follow through. Do not be fooled by temporary prosperity and stability, because what you already perceive as your reward may, in the near future, in fact, become a punishment. At best, you will plunge into boredom. Then you will regret not taking the next step. You will regret that you lacked the courage and wonder what you could have achieved, especially if the opportunity disappears. Also, never set a goal of just being happy, because that doesn’t really mean anything and what is worse is you can be sure that you are unaware of what will actually make you happy unless you continue to make, work toward and achieve your goals. Happiness is a feeling that accompanies our achievements. We achieve happiness when we achieve the goals we have set ourselves and even if you are unable to ever “feel” happy you will have a sense of accomplishment, of making a difference in the world. We are fundamentally narrative creatures; the essence of our existence is to constantly move forward. The only end point is death. Even if we are very successful and achieve all our goals, the moment we achieve them, we envision the next ones (if we don’t we must envision them). In all you do, reach for the Promised Land and don’t stop… ever, reaching… because none of our goals are, in fact, final.