A Tale of Two Cities
The final two verses of Parashat Matot tell of two men from the tribe of Menashe who captured cities and gave the cities names. Yair captured the towns of the Gilad region and named the area "Chavot Yair" ("the towns of Yair") and Novach captured an area called Kenat, which he renamed "Novach."
Rashi takes note of a grammatical anomaly in the second of these verses: "Novach went and captured Kenat and its environs, and he named it 'Novach' in his name." The phrase "Vayikra la" ("He called it") should be written with a "Mapik Hei" – a dot in the letter "Hei," such that it is pronounced "LaH." In this verse, however, it is written without the dot in the "Hei." Rashi explains that the Torah wanted to allude to the fact that the name "Novach" did not pass the test of time; the name was soon forgotten, and the city became known by a different name. The Torah therefore punctuates this phrase without the dot in the "Hei," such that the word "La" will sound like "Lo," or "no," indicating that the name "Novach" did not endure.
The question immediately arises as to why the name "Novach" did not last, while the name of Yair's region – "Chavot Yair" – did. We indeed find mention made of "Chavot Yair" later in Tanakh. Why was Yair deserving of having his name remain associated with his city for many generations, whereas Novach's name was quickly forgotten? More generally, why does the Torah bother to convey this information? Of what practical importance is the fact that these two men captured and renamed cities, and the name of one of them did not endure?
Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt"l suggested that the Torah here teaches a critical lesson concerning the proper attitude towards wealth. Yair named his property "Chavot Yair," the "towns of Yair," which reflected a proper attitude towards possessions. He regarded them with importance, but as secondary to his very being and essence. Novach, by contrast, gave his city his exact name. He looked upon his wealth as one and the same with his self, with his very essence. This is why he was punished. He failed to recognize that a person is not defined by how much property he owns, by how much wealth he has amassed, that there is so much more that goes into a person's essence besides his financial status.
Many people today unfortunately follow Novach's example and judge people solely on the basis of their assets. When we meet somebody for the first time and begin speaking with him, invariably the question is asked, "So, what do you do?" If he tells us that he works as a physician, attorney or stock broker, then we are impressed and hold him in high esteem, even before we know anything else about him. But if he answers that he works with the sanitation department, we instinctively dismiss him as unimpressive and unaccomplished. The message of Novach is that there is so much more to a person than just his wealth, and we must therefore overcome our natural tendency to define people on the basis of money, and learn to recognize and appreciate their many other qualities and attributes.