Nature of Devotion to Marginal Concerns


MATOT, Numbers 30:2-32:42

"Rabbi, I'm not religious, but … ." It's a refrain we hear often, usually as part of an explanation of positive Jewish identity or as an apology for a lack of religious observance.

But truth be told, there are a host of activities in which we engage religiously: We go to the Jersey shore every weekend – religiously. We play tennis every Monday – religiously. We watch the Eagles every Sunday – religiously. We check for e-mail messages every five minutes – religiously.

Mark Twain once said: "Man is the only animal who's got true religion – several of them."

Now, I'm not objecting to any of these activities. In fact, I enjoy them as well. I'm not even objecting to the use of the word "religiously" to convey the unfailing devotion with which we participate in these pastimes.

The concern is as local Rabbi Sidney Greenberg once observed: "So often the word is used by people who perform a host of secular activities 'religiously,' while they fulfill their religious obligations spasmodically or not at all. They are capable of ultimate devotion to marginal concerns and marginal devotion to ultimate concerns."

Of course, we are not the first generation to get our priorities all mixed up. This week, we read in the Torah of the tribes of Gad and Reuben, who wanted to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River, outside the Land of Israel.

Moses did not reject the request, but he did ask one thing of them – to first join their people in the war for the land to the west. "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" he challenges.

Overwhelmed by Moses' argument, Gad and Reuben agree to join their brothers in battle, but proclaim first: "We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children."

Elaborating on this conversation, the rabbis in the Midrash tell us that Moses rebuked the two tribes for putting first things second and second things first. Their primary concern was with their sheep, and their children came later. "This is no way to behave," Moses declares. "First, build cities for your children and then worry about your sheep." Families first; possessions later.

In a few weeks, we will mark Tisha B'Av, the day when we remember the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and then again in 70 C.E. by the Romans. The weeks following begin the process of comfort and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

These summer months, then, are a perfect time for us to begin the process of re-evaluating our priorities.

If we want our children and ourselves to have a rich and positive Jewish identity, which activities should we consider a "must?"

Do they include building a Jewish home and celebrating Jewish life, visiting parents, attending synagogue services, reading a Jewish book, participating in a program of Jewish learning, performing gimilut chasadim (acts of righteousness) or giving tzedakah? Or are these the things to which we say, "I'm not religious," or "I'll get to it when I have the time?"

Re-evaluating What Matters

To become a mensch, you have to constantly re-examine your priorities so we can say: I attend prayer services at least once a month to connect with God, my people and my community, and to reflect on the meaning and purpose of my life – religiously. I light Shabbat candles and enjoy Shabbat dinner with my family – religiously. I better myself through Jewish learning and applying the values of what I learn – religiously.

Matot comes to remind us that the path to a meaningful Jewish life is to set our priorities straight, and to live our religion religiously.

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is the religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.


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