The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
A reader of the biblical text has to wonder at the fiery exchange between Moshe Rabbenu ("Moses, our teacher" as he is known in Jewish tradition) and the tribes of Reuven and Gad in this week’s Torah portion. After fighting wars, and earning and suffering God’s wrath numerous times; after hunger, thirst, and fears of Divine abandonment; the children of Israel are about to enter Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. This is the moment for which they have struggled and dreamed; they’re right at the finish line!
What happens? The leaders of the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moshe whether they might, in fact, be able to stop where they are in TransJordan, east of the Jordan River, and settle there instead of living in Israel.
As we might imagine, Moshe is not pleased with the request. He snaps at the petitioners: “Ha-acheihem yavo’u lemilhama v-atem teshvu po?”–your fellow Israelites will head off to war, while you’ll just sit here?! (Numbers 32:6). The meeting gets worse before it get better, with Moshe flinging a lot of past dirt at the Reubenites and the Gaddites, saying nasty things about their ancestors’ behavior and making very dire predictions about God’s reaction to this treasonous request.
Most of the commentators take Moshe’s position that the Reubenites and the Gaddites are to be criticized for selfishly pursuing their own comfort, instead of the overall success of the Israelites in taking possession of the land promised to them. Some seem to feel that Moshe was too hasty in his condemnation, too quick to ascribe such selfish motives.
What is fascinating about many of the commentaries about this exchange is the close and sensitive attention paid to the psychodynamics of the moment of confrontation itself. In his comment on Numbers 32:5, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notices that the biblical text, quoting the Reubenites and the Gaddites making their case, interrupts itself by saying, "They said:" and then continues where it left off. For Hirsch, this literary anomaly suggests that the casemakers were nervous, and paused in the middle of their plea in serving and generally greedy.
On the other hand, Nahmanides criticizes Moshe for misunderstanding what the tribes were requesting. Nahmanides suggests that the motivation of the tribes was worthy (i.e. more land for all Israelites). Abravanel (15th century Spain, Portugal, Italy) expands Nachmanides’ interpretation of the moment by suggesting that Moshe misunderstood the motives of the tribes because their plea language was sloppy and carelessly worded in the negative ("don’t make us cross the Jordan").
These discussions about the exchange between Moses and the tribes raises some tough questions about the overall message of our tradition. When should we advocate for ourselves as individuals and when should we see ourselves as part of a grander, broader, more shared enterprise? In formulating our own identities as individuals of action and consequence within the Jewish people, how do we figure out in what direction to throw our limited energy and resources? When should we sublimate personal considerations in deference to the collective good?
The Reubenites and the Gaddites’ answer–Moshe’s initial, angry response to the contrary–appears to be: Fulfill your collective responsibilities first, then do for yourself and your family. After Moshe reprimands them, they say they intend to see their Israelite brothers and sisters safely ensconced in the Land of Israel first, and only then will they return to the other side of Jordan to settle.
We are called upon to struggle with similar questions of priorities on a daily basis. There is always any number of excellent reasons not to give as much tzedakah (charity) as we did last year. All of us have expenses that relate to important personal and family needs, which only grow in number and weight over time. In an age when there is often very little sense of true obligation even to our own communities, our tradition demands from us parallel contemplation of collective and personal consequences of all of our actions. We are required to consider all the angles, and to make choices that don’t always allow all our individual needs to be met before venturing out to help others.
In our lives, filled with complex equations of personal, familial, and national benefit–and in a larger society which often appears to celebrate, affirm, and even sanctify values of narrow self-aggrandizement–Judaism obligates us, at bare minimum, to pause and engage seriously with the question of how we must meet our broader obligations to each other, even as we reasonably advocate for our own prosperity and well-being.
It turns out that Hillel‘s three familiar, mellifluous questions plunge right to the heart of one of the starkest challenges to our ability to live individually righteous lives in the loving and obligating context of community: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).