Parshat Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42)
One of the most compelling stories in this week’s portion involves the first “yordim” – Israelites who wanted to disassociate from their brethren and make their homes elsewhere. Sometimes, we might assume that Jewish communities exist outside of the Land of Israel – the Jewish epicenter – because of a historical mistake, namely, the long diaspora that forced Jews to live outside their homeland.
This is a common misconception. We may be tempted to conclude that this is how Jewish communities formed all over the world, but a quick review of the annals of our history reveals that throughout most of our history, groups of Jews had lived outside of the borders of our country, even when they had the option of living there safely.
In this week’s portion, we are told of two tribes, Gad and Reuven, who owned countless flocks of livestock, and when they reached the Gilad region, they believed that the local climate and living conditions were very suitable for raising livestock.
They then came to Moshe and the other leaders of the Jewish people and asked for permission to settle in that region, instead of crossing the Jordan river with the rest of the Jewish people and reaching the Promised Land. Moshe’s response was harsh and unforgiving:
“Shall your brothers go out to battle while you remain here?… Behold! You have risen up in place of your fathers, a society of sinful people…”
(Bamidbar / Numbers 32:6-14).
In other worlds, Moshe seems to sense an ulterior motive – these men were trying to shirk the responsibility of conquering the land. He expresses his fear that their actions might scare the other tribes and dissuade them from entering the land. For Moshe, this was déja vu. It reminded him of the sin of the spies. It was as if forty years of wandering in the desert weren’t enough for the Jewish people – they were prepared to endure further punishment and delay their entry into the land.
After hearing Moshe’s response, the tribal elders declare that they had intended no such thing and that they were ready to fully participate in the conquest of the Land of Israel. Moshe responds by imposing a double-edged and unambiguous condition: if they joined their brothers in the vanguard of the conquering force and participated in the battles, they would be allowed to inherit the Gilad region. If, however, they did not do as they had promised, they would not be able to inherit the region, and their attempt to renege on their promise would be recorded as a terrible sin to God and the entire Jewish people.
Commentators take various positions on the original motive behind the request made by the people of the tribes of Gad and Menashe. Were they indeed fully intent on sharing the nation’s burdens, and had Moshe simply misunderstood their request? Or did Moshe’s stinging rebuke prompt them to slightly amend their original plan and fully participate in any tasks surrounding the nation’s entry into the Land of Israel?
I have been pondering this question for a long time. Did they want to settle an area abounding with pastures and limitless possibilities for economic development, instead of living in the Holy Land, a land steeped in spirituality and ideals, near the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? Alternatively, could they have wanted to disassociate themselves from the rest of the people and leave the burden of waging the war necessary for conquering the land to the other tribes?
If we revisit Moshe’s response, we’ll discover that he is, in fact, linking two elements of the Jewish people’s existence. After his diatribe toward the wayward tribes, he uses a unique expression:
“Then you shall be vindicated from Israel and from God…” (Bamidbar / Numbers 32:22)
Moshe understood that the tribes’ problematic behavior went beyond religious considerations of whether they were allowed to stay in this land of fine pastures, on the other side of the Jordan. He sees their conduct as something indicative of a social flaw, and wonders how the other tribes will react. Before making a decision, we must take these types of issues into consideration.
Leaders have an even greater responsibility. They must be honest with themselves and their consciences, and true to their God. However, that is not enough. There is also the issue of how truth is perceived – how it is seen in the public eye.
Part of our way of life is fulfilling the obligation to be decent and sincere with those around us. In the Talmud, our rabbis tell us about various statutes that were enacted based on this verse – “you shall be vindicated from the people and God…”. In the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, we always say “may we find grace and good understanding in the eyes of God and man.”
Our spiritual goal is that our actions will always be guided by our commitment to these principles. We should also note that in this verse, “God” precedes “man”. Our absolute commitment to the values that God champions takes precedence to finding favor with society. At the same time, society must figure heavily into our considerations, and we must always keep our communities in mind.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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