Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week the parshas of Matot and Masei complete the fourth Book of the Torah, Bamidbar. This very sad Book is filled with setbacks and disappointments, the greatest of which is the decree that the liberated slaves would not merit to enter the land of Israel because of the sin of the Spies.
Not only that, but the triumvirate of Moshe, Aaron, and their sister Miriam would not accompany the Jews into the Promised Land. A new generation that had not experienced slavery in Egypt would, under the aegis of a new leader, Joshua, complete the mission that began when Moshe stood before Pharaoh and commanded him to “Send forth My nation that they may serve Me in the Wilderness.”
At this point, the 40 years of wandering are complete and once again the people are on the brink of invading Canaan. However, a strange incident occurred, which revealed that the lingering effects of the Meraglim (Spies) debacle were still a matter of concern.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad had large holdings of livestock, and the newly conquered lands on the Eastern side of the Jordan were ideal for pasture. They approached Moshe with an offer. They were willing to forfeit all rights to any portion of the land on the Jordan’s Western bank If they could be granted possession of the recently acquired territories.
Upon hearing this, Moshe became furious. He lashed out and accused the two Tribes of repeating the sin of the Spies. Moshe minced no words in his heated condemnation and made no attempt to ascertain their actual motives and intentions. This was extremely uncharacteristic of Moshe, who generally bore the most vexing provocations with great patience.
Why didn’t Moshe extend the benefit of the doubt? It seems that he was guilty here of a rush to judgment. But what was the sin of the petitioners? On the surface, their request does not seem outrageous. If Moshe was opposed to it, all he had to do was declare unequivocally, No!
The request of the two tribes did manifest selfishness, because it showed no regard for the welfare of Klal Yisrael. The people might interpret their “separation from the community” as being based on fear of fighting the inhabitants of Canaan, and this could trigger a panic, such as the one that had led to the original calamity of the Spies. All they could think about was their own needs.
Contrast this with Moshe’s behavior. When Hashem instructed Moshe to go up Mount Abarim and see the Land G-d had given the Jews, after which he would be “gathered unto his people,” he requested that Hashem should appoint a new leader “who shall go out before them and come in before them” so the “assembly of Hashem not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Moshe was only concerned about the effect his death would have on Klal Yisrael. His prime goal was to perpetuate the Torah way of life through Hashem’s chosen nation. Even as he approached death, his primary preoccupation was for the welfare of the Jewish people.
It was from this perspective that he considered the proposal of Reuven and Gad. He did not claim that they were guilty in an intentional, premeditated fashion. They weren’t deliberately plotting to discourage the Jews from the conquest. But that would have been the inevitable effect of their proposal—so how could they not have noticed it?
Their intense focus on material concerns made them oblivious to all other considerations. It wasn’t sinful to be solicitous about their source of sustenance, but not to the point where this made them ignore the needs of the Jewish People.
As a result of Moshe’s reprimand, the tribes came to their senses and offered guarantees exceeding what was required. They possessed a quality sorely in need today, the ability to accept rebuke and make amends. They promised to join their brothers in the vanguard of the battle and remain with them until all the tribes were settled in their inheritance. Only then would they return to their homesteads on the eastern side of the Jordan.
We must learn the lessons of this story. All Jews are responsible one for another. The welfare of Klal Yisrael should never fade from our consciousness and we should always pay attention to the possible, though unintended, consequences of our words and deeds.
All of our prayers are formulated in terms of the tzibbur (community). We thereby declare that Hashem has chosen the Jewish nation and request our needs in the merit of being members in good standing of that exalted group. Let us always seek its welfare.