Weekly Torah Commentary – Matot July 22, 2011

“The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an extremely large number of animals,” the Bible relates in this week’s portion (1). “And they saw that the Ya’zer and Gilead areas were good for livestock. The descendants of Gad and Reuben came and presented the following petition to Moses… ‘If we have found favor in your eyes, may this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.'”

Moses becomes extremely upset. He gives them a fiery and dramatic sermon that lasts ten complete verses, a pretty long stretch in biblical narrative. “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” Moses thunders. “Why do you dissuade the heart of the children of Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given them”?

Forty years earlier, he reminds them, the people of Israel had been poised to enter the land of Canaan. But following a negative report by the spies who were sent to scout the land, the entire nation spurned the land promised to their ancestors as the eternal heritage of Israel. G-d decreed that they remain in the desert for forty years, until that entire generation died out and a new generation prepared to accept the gift and challenge of the Promised Land. And now, said Moses to the Reubenites and the Gadites, you are repeating the sin of the Spies — a sin which condemned an entire generation and stopped Jewish history in its tracks for forty years. Like your parents before you, you are about to dissuade the heart of your brethren from entering the land. “You will destroy this entire nation,” Moses concludes his passionate rebuke.

The Reubenites and Gadites accept Moses’ rebuke with grace. In response, they clarify their original position. Far from seeking to free themselves from the impending wars for the Land, they were fully prepared to send their troops into the Land and take a leading role in the battles until they were successfully concluded. Only then would they return to the lands allotted to them in the east. “We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his Inheritance,” they pledge.

Moses then consents to their plea, changes his tone and grants them the territories they requested.
Several points in this interaction are perplexing.

First, since their intentions it seems, were really pure (they never had in mind to abandon their brethren going to war), how did Moses so totally misread them and become so furious with them? Why didn’t Moses first ask what their intentions were before coming down so hard on them?

Secondly, Moses’ accusation focused on the point that it was unacceptable that one segment of Jewry isolate from the rest of the nation, shirking responsibility and escaping the fate of their brethren. But what about the seemingly more important point: G-d wanted the Jews to settle the land at the west of the Jordan! These people decided that they wish to remain on the eastern side.  But who gave these two tribes the right to redefine the plan and choose the East instead of the West? Why did Moses in the end consent to their request?

Every serious student of the Hebrew Bible is aware that most biblical plots contain sub-plots (often sub-sub plots), rarely articulated in the narrative explicitly.  This event is no exception: The explicit narrative is about two tribes of Israel concerned with their enormous amount of livestock. Yet the drama in which this episode is captured in the Torah somehow gives one a sense that these tribes were not only concerned about their cattle; something very personal was at stake in their request to remain in Trans-Jordan. What was it?

The Bible gives us no hint. There is no way of knowing. We are left in the dark until Moses is about to leave this world.

In the last section of Deuteronomy, just moments before his passing, Moses speaks to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. His words to the tribe of Gad must be heeded to carefully:

“He [Gad] chose the first portion [of land available], for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden.”

These brief cryptic words reveal the true reason behind Gad’s insistence to settle the territory to the East of the Jordan. Moses, the lawgiver, was destined to die there and never to cross the Jordan. Have you ever considered that Gad wanted to remain with Moses? That Gad could not allow Moses’ burial plot to remain isolated [G-d forbid]  in the plains of Moab devoid of the presence of even a single Jew?  That Gad could not conceive of abandoning, even in death, the one who led them through all those 40 years?

The cry of Gad and Reuben “Do not take us across the Jordan,” was a plea not to separate from Moses. If Moses is not destined to cross the river, they too did not wish to cross it. These were no mere farmers worrying about real-estate. These were souls so deeply attached to their leader and teacher that they were determined to spend their lives near the resting place of Moses.

Moses, clearly, did not anticipate such a thing. When Gad and Reuben approached him with their request, they naturally could not communicate the entire truth. They would not talk to Moses about his own death and his gravesite. Instead, they discussed secondary motivations, namely the fate of their abundant cattle.

Moses, in his intuition, felt that what they were expressing to him did not capture the entire story. Moses sensed that their words eclipsed a deeper truth. He thus suspected them in contriving a scheme designed to escape responsibility. Hence, he rebuked them severely.

Yet surprisingly, they accepted Moses’ words in grace. The narrative makes it clear that they were not upset by the false accusations Moses thrust upon them. Why not?

Because they knew that they were not being straightforward. Above all, this was not about them and their ego; it was about their selfless love and dedication to Moses. His fury did not alienate them, it merely demonstrated once again the genuine leader Moses was and strengthened their resolve to remain close to him forever.

Moses agreed to fulfill their request. He could not tear himself away from the people he dedicated his life to. If his people reciprocated the love he showered upon them, he would not be the one to expel them from his midst. And at the last moments before his death, he extols Gad for this deeply loving choice.

Nevertheless, their choice is not without criticism from some of the Sages.  Notwithstanding the noble and deeply moving intentions of Gad and Reuben, their choice is considered “hasty” and immature. It was emotionally compelling and profoundly moving, but spiritually short sighted for by separating from the rest of the community of Israel and failing to enter into the Land, their own spirituality suffered over time and in fact, they were the first of the tribes to lose their land at the time of the Assyrian conquest.

Yes, Gad and Reuben could not abandon Moses’ burial place. They were determined to remain in the proximity of Moses’ body. Yet they failed to realize that Moses’ true presence would not remain interred in the earth of the plains of Moab. Moses would continue to live on in his vision, in his ideas, in his teachings.  And Moses vision was that the Jewish people fulfill their G-d given mandate to enter the Land of Canaan, settle it and transform it into a Holy Land, redefining the physical landscape of the land as an abode for G-dliness.

Moses’ life embodied a truth, a vision, a way of looking at the world and understanding the objective of man’s journey on this earth. As long as that truth would live in the hearts of people dedicated to Moses’ dream of transforming the earthy land of Canaan into a divine landscape, Moses would remain alive.

Certainly to have been in the physical presence of Moses was undoubtedly great. Greater yet, however, is to fulfill his mission to settle the Holy Land.

In Tune with Torah this week = recognizing the importance of choosing correctly among competing priorities.May Hashem give all of us wisdom to do so in every decision we make.
Shabbat Shalom

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