From Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, from Ohel Torah, Parshat Mattot.
There is no one holy like God; there is no one biltecha, besides You. I Samuel 2:2
In the Talmud it is written that Rabbi Yehuda bar Menasya said, “Don’t read biltecha, “besides you,” but lebalotecha, “to outlive You” (1). For God is not like one of flesh and blood: the nature of one of flesh and blood is that his works outlive him, but the Holy One of Blessing outlives His works.
Lebalotecha can also mean “to be in charge.” The Holy One of Blessing is in charge of Creation, but we of flesh and blood — our possessions are in charge of us.
The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands [on the eastern side of the Jordan] were good for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “[These lands] are good for livestock, and your servants have livestock…let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” Numbers 32:1-4
Our sages said, Korach was a rich Jew and Haman was a rich non-Jew. Both of them were taken from this world. Why? Because their wealth was not a gift of the Holy One of Blessing; rather, they took it for themselves. And so we find with the Reubenites and the Gadites, who had many flocks and who loved their wealth, and who settled outside the Land of Israel, that they were exiled first. (2)
This is hard to understand. How can a person take wealth for himself, if it is not God’s will to give it to him? But God gave riches to the world in order to increase the glory of heaven in the world, and these people used the riches for themselves, and abandoned God’s will.
1) Rabbi Yehuda isn’t telling us not to read the verse as it’s written; rather, this kind of punning is used frequently in the Talmud simply as an opportunity to teach. 2) Berachot 10a and Megillah 14a
I used to be a carpenter for a very high-end company. After our daughter was born, I took on private clients on Sundays and evenings to make ends meet. One day I was on a job in a huge and exquisite house, filled with luxury pieces like the $350 planter I was building, and got to talking to the client. He mentioned that I was working late and I said something about how it was a catch-22 — now that I had a daughter I wanted even more to be at home, but I had to spend more time away to support the family. The client, in all seriousness, sighed and said, “I know what you mean.” This is an obvious example of what I think the Kotzker is talking about, but we’re all prone to this kind of failing, letting our possessions and our schedules be in charge of us instead of the other way around. Lebalot also means “to spend,” and this fits Rabbi Yehuda’s teaching too: too often we end up spent by, rather than spending, our own time and money. It’s our own loss. Like the Reubenites and Gadites, we’re missing out on living in the Promised Land for the sake of some cows.