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).

“Kol-make-nefesh bishgaga….”

Foster_Story_OTB_173_FleeingToTheCityOfRefuge Tomorrow, in Shabbat Torah service, we read Parashat Matot Mas’ei, which I always look forward to, particularly because of the cantillation of Numbers 35:5 (I discuss this verse in the fourth chapter of Mind over Memes). The verse has two trop symbols (and melodies), the yerach ben yomo and the karne parah, which occur nowhere else in the Torah. Beyond that, each of four instances of the phrase “alpayim baammah” (two thousand cubits) has a different trop melody, so that you hear glorious variety in the repetition. (You can listen to my recording of the verse here.) There have been many interpretations of this–but whatever its meanings, I love hearing and chanting it and am not alone in this. Last summer, this Shabbat (which fell in early August), I got to chant these verses at B’nai Jeshurun. A fellow leyner (chanter of Torah), Sharon Anstey, came up to me afterwards to talk about that very verse and trop, and she mentioned it later in a beautiful piece for the High Holidays.

But today my mind and ear is on a different part of the parsha. Verses 9 through 15 give instructions for the appointment of cities of refuge for all those manslayers who killed someone by accident (“kol-make-nefesh bishgaga”). The occurrence of this phrase in verse 15 stands out in a Torah reading, because it comes at the end of an aliya and therefore has the “sof aliya” melodic phrase and a deceleration. It rings in my ear like jubilation and warning: “kol-make-nefesh bishgaga.” The idea is that those who killed in error, or who may have killed in error, should have a place of refuge until they can be judged by the congregation. Without this, people would just be killing each other back and forth in revenge, and mistakes would be treated the same as intentional crimes. “Bishgaga” means not only “by mistake” but “unawares.” In Judaism, those who commit sins unawares are still responsible, but in a different way from those who commit them by intent. The distinction is of great importance; sins and mistakes are not all treated as equivalent.

One of the great problems of today’s culture of online accusation is its outrage over missteps, even unintended ones. People do not have a place of refuge; they do not get to wait for a fair trial. Reactivity is the norm. I don’t have a Twitter account; I am not at all attracted to what goes on there. But Twitter is not a separate sphere; tweets have now become part of everyday reality. They get quoted in the news. They might be brought up and used against someone years after the fact.

If there is one thing I wish for the world around me, it is discernment: distinguishing one situation from another, allowing enough time to assemble the facts, granting everyone fair judgment, and giving a refuge, even within ourselves, for mistakes and unclear situations. The internal city of refuge may be the most important of all: a solitude for sorting out thoughts and actions, a place to go in the mind.

 

Art credit: Fleeing to the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:11-28). From Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, 1884.

 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories