Matot-Masei: What We Can Learn from Regret, by Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham

“Through the lens of regret, we learn the importance of appreciating the land and its fundamental purpose of sustaining humankind.”

In a surprising twist, the midrash recounts the regret expressed  by the tribes of Reuben and Gad for choosing to stay east of the  Jordan river instead of settling in the land of Israel 

When these two tribes entered the land of Israel and saw how much room was there for sowing and how much room was there for planting trees, they said ”Better is one handful of pleasantness in this land Israel than two fistfuls of land on the other side of the Jordan” Upon reflection, they themselves withdrew their complaint and said “Is it not we who chose the territory east of the Jordan ourselves?” (Vayikra Rabba 3:1).

This change of heart was entirely unanticipated in light of this week’s parsha Matot-Masei where we find these very same tribes of Reuben and Gad pleading with Moses to allow them and their families to settle east of the Jordan rather than to enter the land of Israel. The reason provided is the economic suitability of the Transjordan region, “it is a land for livestock and your servants have livestock (Numbers 32:4).” Moses criticizes them “Shall your brothers go to battle while you remain here (Numbers 32:6)?” Moses is especially concerned that this situation could quickly deteriorate, with the remainder of the tribes becoming fearful of entering the land of Israel. Reuben and Gad agree to Moses’ terms to fight alongside the tribes of Israel until the tribes obtain their respective territories. And so Reubenites and Gadites cross into Israel ready to fight and conquer the land with the rest of the nation. And as per the midrash, upon entering the land, they immediately regretted their initial decision to settle in the Transjordan.

In The Power of Regret, Daniel H. Pink discusses an interesting theory of motivation which  helps to explain the underpinnings of regret. He describes three selves: the actual self, an ideal self and an ought self. The actual self are the attributes we currently possess whereas the ideal self is the self we believe we could be if we followed our hopes, dreams and wishes. Our ought self is the self we believe we should be- with an eye toward our responsibilities and commitments. Research demonstrates that people regret their inability to live up to their ideal selves more than their failures to live up to their ought selves.  Failures to become our ideal selves are really failures to pursue opportunities, a failure of inaction, while failures to become our ought selves are failures to fulfill an obligation. In the midrashic description,  the tribes of Reuben and Gad touch the fertile soil in the Holy Land, imagine the possibilities and experience a deep sense of disappointment. This fertile, fruitful beautiful terrain fills them with regret, the missed opportunity of  settling  in Israel to farm the more ideal land to support their families and livestock.

However, through this very lens of regret, we  learn the importance of appreciating the land and its fundamental purpose of sustaining humankind. We experience this throughout the shmita year. While the land lies fallow,  we can reflect on the multiple negative impacts of climate change on shifting agroecosystem boundaries , invasive crops and pests, and more extreme weather events. These impacts on farming have led to lower crop yields, lower nutritional value of grains, and lower livestock productivity. Current agricultural practices also contribute to the problem by producing 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions. All of these serve as contributing factors that threaten global food security. It is vital that we take the learnings from this week’s parsha and turn them into action supporting the climate action movement. 

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Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham is a physician and member of the Orthodox clergy. She has taught Torah and Talmud in both formal and informal settings. Carmella earned her BA degree from Barnard College and her medical degree from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. At Mount Sinai, Carmella did her residency in Internal Medicine and Fellowship in Women’s Health. Afterwards she practiced at the Mount Sinai Women’s Health Program with a dual appointment in Medicine and Ob-Gyn. In 2017, she was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat. Carmella currently works at a Pharmaceutical company in Medical Affairs specializing in Women’s Cancers. In addition Carmella is an active member of the JOFA board.