Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30-36)Winning at all Costs?

 The first three-point shooting contest was in 1986 at the NBA All-Star game in Dallas; eight all-stars were selected for the competition. The Celtics’ Larry Bird was known as a trash talker. When he walked into the locker room as one of the competitors he asked, “which one of you guys is going to finish second?” He won the contest that night. The definition of trash talk is “insulting or boastful speech intended to demoralize, intimidate, or humiliate someone, especially an opponent in an athletic contest.” University of Connecticut doctoral student Karen McDermot wrote her dissertation on the effect trash talk has on performance. She had 200 men and women play a video game, while sometimes being subjected to verbal insults. She found that the insults had a direct effect on cognitive focus of the player and his or her ability to focus and perform. Whether it’s a baseball catcher verbally insulting the next batter, Muhammad Ali taunting his opponent in the ring, or linebackers teasing just tackled players, their words are effective in reducing an opponent’s ability to concentrate on the game. How does this relate to the Jews wandering in the desert? The forty-year desert sojourn was coming to an end and a new generation was about to enter the Land of Israel. Two of the tribes, Gad and Reuven, made a special request from Moses. They wanted to remain on the other side of the Jordon due to its abundance of grazing for their flocks as well as the large land masses for their families. Moses said to the descendants (i.e. tribes) of Gad and the descendants (i.e. tribes) of Reuven, “Should your brothers go out to war while you settle here? (32:6) If we stopped reading after this verse, we would conclude that Moses’ main complaint to the tribes of Gad and Reuven is that they would not contribute equally to the needs of the rest of the people. Everyone else would be devoted to the cause of claiming and fighting for the Land of Israel; Gad and Reuven would be shirking their responsibility if they stayed on the other side of the Jordan and didn’t join. The main complaint in the above verse is that the two tribes would not be pulling their weight. However, in the next verse, Moses has a different line of reasoning for why the two tribes should join with the others toward the goal of settling in Israel.   Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which G-d has given them?  (32:7) His concern here is that if a segment of the people does not participate in fighting for their land and settling it, it will affect the morale of the rest of the people. If two tribes stay behind because of better land benefits, it will send a discouraging message to the others. “Discourage” is a rough translation of the Hebrew word in question (תניאון), but one of the 19th century’s great authorities on Hebrew, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (Germany, 1785-1865), says that “discourage” is ambiguous, and doesn’t fully explain Moses’ message to the families of Gad and Reuven. He explains that Moses’ complaint has two different connotations. The first is that if the two tribes don’t join with their brethren, they potentially will remove any desire to enter the Land of Israel. Moses was worried that the rest of the Jews would look at Gad and Reuven and think that Israel was not as great as was pitched to them and, consequently, not worth the effort to try to conquer it.   The second connotation of Moses’ complaint was different. There was a desire to conquer and inhabit the Land but they would look at Gad and Reuven’s remaining behind and wonder if they were doing so because the venture was too dangerous. They may want to go to Israel but lack the confidence to believe it is conquerable. According to the first explanation, the tribes of Gad and Reuven might dampen the enthusiasm the people had for Israel but according to the second explanation, they would cast doubt in the people’s ability to realize their goal. There are many different ways to get into someone’s head and diffuse their drive to achieve. It can be by removing their desire to accomplish or by lowering their confidence-sometimes people do that through shame and anger. The ethics of trash talking can be debated (some might argue that it’s part of the world of competition, whatever it takes to win the game, the account, or client but, from a Torah perspective, it is a clear violation of causing emotional pain to someone through speech [onas devarim]), yet, it is incumbent on us to recognize that beyond sports and other competitive ventures, all of us have the ability to actively or passively motivate others to accomplish great things. It might be showing up on time for an event, and other times simply showing up as a sign of support. Also, how we portray our enthusiasm for something and what we say about someone’s accomplishments can be a factor in whether other people accomplish their goals. I know a podiatrist who, while she was still in podiatry school, her mother told her, “I tell people my daughter removes blisters from people’s smelly feet.” The mother obviously had her own issues but even if she was embarrassed or disappointed by her daughter’s vocation, she should have thought about the impact her words would have on her daughter-and perhaps other aspiring podiatrists. Fortunately, the daughter was not discouraged and today she regularly operates on people’s feet and ankles, some of which she has been instrumental in saving from amputation. Moses’ message to the Gad and Reuven families was that although he acknowledged their sense of responsibly to their families, nevertheless, they also needed to consider how their actions would affect others. So, too, with us. Whatever direction in life we take, we have to realize that we don’t live in a bubble; our words and actions will impact others. A kind word can go a long way to help affect someone’s emotional being but so can a discouraging word. Whatever our needs are in life, we shouldn’t pursue them by ruining someone else’s chance to achieve theirs. Our goal is to flee from discouraging someone, and look for opportunities to encourage them.    (Source: HaKesav VeHaKabalah, Bamidbar 30:6)
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center