Parashat Matot/Mas’ei

Friday, August 2, 2019 /1 Av, 5779
Parashat Matot/Mas’ei Numbers 30:2-36:13

Dear Friends,

After forty years of wandering the dessert, the Israelites are preparing for battle so that they can enter the Land of Israel. But not everyone is as thrilled as Moses would have hoped.

Moses is approached by people from the Israelite tribes of Gad and Reuben, who ask, “The land that the Eternal has [already] conquered… is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us… if this land were given to [us] as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan [to Israel].” (Numbers 32:2-5)

The Gadites and Reubenites explain that their cattle requires land with specific attributes. They are settled and thriving just across the Jordan from Israel. Is it really necessary that they settle in Israel itself?

Moses, incensed, offers a stern rebuke of their proposal. “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?”(Numbers 33:6) The Gaddites and Reubenites insist that they were not trying to get out of their communal responsibilities. Each of their able bodied men will fight for the Land of Israel, and will not leave until every Israelite is in possession of a portion of land. Only then will then leave Israel to go back to their cattle and children.

It appears that Moses was quick to anger. Perhaps the motivations of the Gaddites and Reubenites were not as sinister as Moses had previously thought. 15th Century rabbi Isaac Arama comments, “One would think that Moses aught to have apologized for having mistaken their motive. Why did he not do so? Because his anger was in fact justified. He saw their real motivations; they had found a good living and did not want to give it up. The spiritual import of the Promised Land meant nothing to them. They considered settlement a purely economic matter – anywhere. They spoke in pragmatic terms while Moses no fewer than four times reminded them of God’s share in the Land.”

Arama’s argument is supported by Moses’ second critique of the tribes in which he compares them to their fathers, who had been sent to Israel to scout the land years earlier. “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Eternal has given them? That is what your fathers did!” (Numbers 32:7-8a)

Moses understood that the tribes of Gad and Reuben were setting themselves apart from the rest of the community. Although they were willing to participate in battle, Moses was unsatisfied as long as they viewed their participation in battle as quid pro quo for receiving the land they desired. Moses chided them, reminding the tribes that they would never cease to be part of people Israel. They were to enter the Land of Israel hand in hand with their fellow Israelites, in the sight of God. Moses hoped that in fighting alongside their brothers they would come to understand that the Land of Israel would always be their land. Their forty year journey throughout the desert had fostered a sacred bond between them, their fellow Israelites, and God. Moses wishes them to learn that communal responsibility was far more important than personal comfort and wealth.

Whether the Gadites and Reubenites got the message is up for debate, but we can. Among all the wealth in the world, there is nothing so valuable as community.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Cassi Kail