Mattot-Massei: Actions Speak Louder than Words Speak Louder than Actions
At the transition point between the two combined portions we read this Shabbat, the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses with a request. Rather than be assigned land within Israel, they wish to settle on the opposite side of the Jordan because, "pens will we build for our cattle here, and cities for our little ones" (Num. 32:16). Moses agrees with their requesting, telling them, "build for yourselves cities for your little ones and pens for your flocks" (32:24).
The switch Moses makes when he agrees is significant. Midrash Rabbah, a classic rabbinic work, notes that Moses wanted to be sure the two tribes have their priorities straight. While cattle and the profit derived from them are important, human life is even more important, so he mentions the little ones first.
Yet isn't this just a question of words? Aren't they both saying the same things? This is why Moses adds further to them, "and what has come from your mouth you shall do" (32:24). In Judaism, actions are what counts. Knowing about the mitzvot, the commandments, is nothing like performing them and in so doing seeking to make the world actually reflect God's will.
At the same time, it can't possibly right that just going through the motions of doing the right things, or worse, doing the right things with bad intentions, can be okay.
It is to guard against this concern when it comes to Judaism's emphasis on actions that Moses speaks in the manner in which he does. It's as if he's saying, "think about the words that came out of your mouths, and now those that came out of mine, what were your intentions really? What will your priorities be when you finally do act?"
There was a pious rabbi, Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakkanah, who would pray before the prayer service began, that "there may be no error on my part when I pray" (Berachot 28b).
Moses' reminder is that our intentions (kavannah) when we act are important. Sometimes, beginning with a statement of intention, can shape our actions for the better, instilling in them the proper awareness and meaning we should want them always to have. And perhaps even more challenging is Rabbi Nechunya's model, where we treat our words and actions as truly being equally important, and so we must pause before them as well to be sure of our intentions before we even speak about what our actions will be.