Parashat Mattot

Asking The Right Questions

The request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle outside of the Land of Israel raises the issue of balancing communal and individual needs.

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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").

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Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro

Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro, formerly the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, New Jersey, made aliyah in 2008.