As the Jewish people prepare to enter the land of Israel the tribes of Gad and Reuvein inform Moshe of their future building plans:
וַיִּגְּשׁ֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ וַ֣יֹּאמְר֔וּ גִּדְרֹ֥ת צֹ֛אן נִבְנֶ֥ה לְמִקְנֵ֖נוּ פֹּ֑ה וְעָרִ֖ים לְטַפֵּֽנוּ׃
Then they stepped up to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children…”
With a delightfully subtle nuance, Moshe instructs them to do as they suggested, but reverses the order of their initial request:
בְּנֽוּ־לָכֶ֤ם עָרִים֙ לְטַפְּכֶ֔ם וּגְדֵרֹ֖ת לְצֹנַאֲכֶ֑ם וְהַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּיכֶ֖ם תַּעֲשֽׂוּ׃
Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, and do what you have promised.”
What exactly was Moshe’s issue with the plan of the tribes of Gad and Reuvein? And what was the point of the reversal? Rashi explains:
נבנה למקננו פה. חָסִים הָיוּ עַל מָמוֹנָם יוֹתֵר מִבְּנֵיהֶם וּבְנוֹתֵיהֶם, שֶׁהִקְדִּימוּ מִקְנֵיהֶם לְטַפָּם. אָמַר לָהֶם מֹשֶׁה "לֹא כֵן! עֲשׂוּ הָעִקָּר עִקָּר וְהַטָּפֵל טָפֵל, בְּנוּ לָכֶם תְּחִלָּה עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וְאַחַר כֵּן גְּדֵירוֹת לְצֹאנְכֶם" (תנחומא):
WE WILL BUILD [SHEEP FOLDS] FOR OUR CATTLE HERE — They paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters, because they mentioned their cattle before their children. Moses said to them, “Not so! Make the main thing the main thing and what is subordinate subordinate. First build cities for your little ones and afterwards enclosures for your flocks” (cf. v. 24) (Tanchuma).
Apparently, in wanting to build a shelter for their animals and livestock before building a home for their children, the leaders of Gad and Reuvein displayed a fundamental character flaw, namely, that they prized their material possessions and livestock above their own children. In his response, Moshe made sure to rectify their order of priorities.
One must ask, though, can this really be true? The great leaders of the tribes of Gad and Reuvein really cared more about their material wealth than they did about their own children? This is a severe character flaw we hardly find in anyone on earth, much less in the leaders of the great tribes of Gad and Reuvein!
Thus, R. Dovid Hofstedter (Dorash Dovid p.228) suggests that, of course, this was not the reality at all. Surely the leaders of Gad and Reuvein valued their children above their animals. However, building a shelter for their animals was simple and quick. Building homes for their children was far more complicated. Therefore, their plan was to quickly assemble the shelters for their animals so that they could get it out of the way and then focus solely on doing the best possible job for their children. It is this that Moshe suggested against. While in theory their plan was correct, it would give off a bad impression and would appear as if they were prioritizing their animals over their children. At this juncture, after forty years wandering in the desert, it was absolutely critical that the children of the Jewish nation be made to feel of utmost importance. Moshe therefore instructed the leaders of Gad and Reuvein to “keep the main thing the main thing” and construct the homes for their children before all else.
This, then, is the two-fold, absolutely critical message that is learned from this exchange with Moshe Rabbeinu. In order to properly educate children, they must first be made to feel special, of utmost importance, cared for, and loved. Only then will their hearts be open to receiving guidance and direction. Further, while it might not always seem this way, appearances are absolutely crucial — especially when it comes to the education of children. Even though the tribes of Gad and Reuvein might have technically been correct, they did not take into account how their actions might have been perceived by, and influenced, others. Once we have their hearts through care and affection, we must educate children first and foremost through leading by only the best possible example.