Reuben, Gad, and Ambition

In Matot, the first part of the double Torah portion to be read in synagogues this Shabbat, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad tell Moses that they would rather settle east of the Jordan instead of crossing over the river, since they see that this land is good for their cattle. Moses asks them angrily whether they intend to abandon their brothers, who will need to fight for their new land, and why they are turning the Israelites’ hearts away from God’s promise, as their fathers did before them. They reply that they will set up sheepfolds and cities here, then go forth and lead the battle. When it is won, and when every man has received his inheritance (ish nahalato), then they will turn back and settle here. Moses accepts this offer, provided they fulfill their promise.

In this passage, Moses’ main concern is to fulfill God’s will for the people; he objects not to Reuben’s and Gad’s children’s wish to stay here, but to the betrayal that this would involve. They make clear that they will not betray the people, or God, or the plan.

I am now going to make a leap into the present, which means misinterpreting this text a bit, or at least leaving it behind momentarily.

A modern-day leader, in contrast with Moses, might chide the children of Reuben and Gad for not being ambitious enough. Why are you settling here? Don’t you want to go for the best? Don’t you have any drive, any will to succeed, any growth mindset?

One of the great illnesses of Western society (particularly the U.S., I think) is the belief that people should always be striving for more on others’ terms: more money, more prestige, a higher position, a bigger house, the next big thing. There are actually workplaces that push you out if they see that you aren’t striving to move up.

But what if you are striving for things, just not on others’ terms? It may look, on the outside, as though you are just sitting still, not moving ahead in life, but that stillness can contain a lot of movement.

Also, a person doesn’t always have to be in motion. Stillness is good, too: for finding calm in yourself, for contemplating things, for taking in music, poetry, speech, for making sense of a bewildering world.

But there’s more to Ruben’s and Gad’s children’s decision than a desire for stillness (which doesn’t come up in the passage). They recognize the land as good for them and their cattle. They see no need to move further when this place is already suitable.

That’s another reason for staying still sometimes: you recognize that what you have, where you are, is good. Why do you have to go off in pursuit of something else, when you have what you want and need?

People here in Hungary are often surprised that I enjoy living in Szolnok. How is that possible? they ask. Especially after New York? Well, I don’t need everything that New York has; in fact, it can be overwhelming. Here in Szolnok, I have good work, friends, surroundings; and I can easily get to Budapest and other cities if there’s something I want to attend there. Besides, a lot of what I do is at my desk, or in my room; I don’t need a lively external environment all the time. My life is far from staid; I am writing, translating, playing music, teaching, learning, taking in others’ work, exploring places on bike. No one who knows me would call my life dull. Some of this, or maybe most of it, would have been impossible if I had tried to lead a so-called successful life on others’ terms.

This does not mean that moving up in the world is inherently conformist or compromising; it’s good to be recognized for what you do and to exceed your past limits. Sometimes internal and external success go together; the convergence can be beautiful. My point is only that we don’t always have to be moving up in a recognizable way, or fulfilling what others think should be our plans.

Some of the best times in my life, and the most fruitful, were when I was in simple surroundings, with a job that allowed me to get by. It would have been nice to have a little more money, but the jobs that offered more money often expected you to believe in this money too. If you didn’t, you were a slight heretic.

This reminds me of a beautiful song that David Dichelle played yesterday on WFMU’s Continental Subway: Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg, and Rob Schwimmer’s rendition of the Yiddish song “Tsuzamen Mitn Gelt” (“Az Nisht Keyn Emune”), which begins (the English translation is under each line):

Az nit keyn emune tsuzamen mitn gelt, vos-zhe arbetstu af der velt?
     Without faith, together with your money,
     what good is it to work in the world?
Az nit keyn bine tsuzamen mitn gelt, vos-zhe bistu af der velt?
     Without understanding, together with your money,
     what good is your being in the world?

My comments here are tangential to the text; they aren’t about the text, except in passing. The text is about something other than success; it’s about God’s plan and promise, and the people’s duty to fulfill their part in it. But it arrives at an ingenious solution to a conflict: the children of Reuben and Gad will fulfill their duty, but also follow their desire and judgment. Beyond that, the passage is about recognition: that the good life is right there, under their feet, “vehineh hamakom, m’kom mikneh.”

Painting: Benjamin West, “Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant” (1800).

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2 Comments

  1. Veronika Kisfalvi

     /  July 12, 2021

    First, I want to say that I enjoy your posts immensely, even though I might not be responding as promptly as I would like. Life is much busier now with the lifting of more and more restrictions.

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that I’m a member of a small Torah Study group of my Chavurah, and this is the parsha we studied last year (we study together once a month only). I’m often struck by the many possibilities for interpretation in whatever parsha we are studying, depending on each individual’s particular interests or the issues that come up for them, year to year. The parshas are a bottomless well. The power of stories, yes?

    Last year, we discussed the request that the tribes of Reuben and Gad made, but only peripherally. We focused more on the question of vows. But the question of ambition that you bring up is a really interesting one. So here are some thoughts on ambition and endless craving.

    For me, it comes down (in part, anyway) to the question of whose lives we are living, how much we are aware of this, and growing into our own skin. I think the question of ambition is related to what is clamouring to be fed inside us, and what is “enough”. Some hungers can never be fed enough; they are too archaic in our individual psyches. Love, attention, feeling worthy as we are, are such hungers, I think. Wanting to be judged good enough in the eyes of those who matter/have mattered to us. This can be a real driving force, and we can see it all around us both in our so-called leaders and in ordinary people. Compulsive accumulation (of wealth, success, fame, recognition …) is a giveaway. Living the false self in the desire to please. What present accomplishment, what success, can fill these old voids? They give rise to seeking more and more in the here and now, but the damage may be too deep, too rooted. It’s not that such people (and I’m not excluding myself …) don’t have enough, it’s that they have grown up feeling that they themselves are not, can never be enough. Much work needs to be done by a person to repair such damage.

    The painter Robert Motherwell is quoted as having said: “All my life I’ve been working on the work – every canvas a sentence or paragraph of it. Each picture is only an approximation of what I want.” For me, this expresses not only the striving for the unattainable, but also the recognition and the coming to terms with it that can free us somewhat.

    Shavua tov!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Vera, for these thoughts, and for telling me about your Torah study group. Yes, I agree, ambition can come from a profound hunger, a sense of not being enough. How many of us have had a desire, at least once in a while, to show others that we are important too? Take that compulsion away, and the remaining ambition is simply a wish to do things better than before, to come closer to the good in some way, be it morally, artistically, practically, or otherwise. I see no harm in wishing to do better. The harm lies in thinking that if we don’t gleam in the eyes of the world at large, we are somehow inferior to those who do.

      Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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