The Grazing Lands East of Jordan

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Matot-Masei – the Grazing Lands East of the Jordan

By Rabbi Michael Hattin

Introduction

Sefer BeMidbar concludes with the reading of the parashiyot of Matot and Masei. Although these sections address a variety of topics, many of the matters pertain to the Land of Canaan and to the preparations of the people for their imminent entry. Thus, the Torah devotes discussion to the battle against Midian, to the Biblical borders, to the Levitical cities and to the Cities of Refuge, all of which are presented against the backdrop of Moshe's impending death and the coming to an end of the wanderings in the wilderness.

Let us recall that a short while ago, at the end of Parashat Chukat, we read of the astonishing defeat of the two mighty Amorite kings, Sichon and Og. After denying Bnei Yisrael rights of passage through his land, the belligerent Sichon had aggressively massed his troops and confronted them east of the Jordan River at Yahatz, only to be ignominiously beaten. Continuing northwards, the people of Israel were then confronted by the powerful Og, an imposing warlord of legendary physical proportions. Again, they were victorious, and thus found themselves in unexpected possession of a large swath of territory east of the Jordan River, stretching from the present-day Golan Heights in the north until Wadi Arnon located east of the Dead Sea in the south. This week, we shall focus our attention on that region, and, in particular, on the fateful decision of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and 'half' of Menashe to remain east of the Jordan and to settle it.

The Request of the 'Two and One Half' Tribes, and the Reading of Abarbanel

"The descendants of Reuven and Gad had great and numerous flocks, and they saw that the land of Yaazer and the land of Gilad was grazing land. The descendants of Gad and Reuven approached Moshe, Elazar the Cohen and the leaders of the congregation, and said: 'Atarot, Dibon, Yaazer, Nimra, Cheshbon, El'ale, Sevam, Nevo and Be'on are located in the land that God struck down before Bnei Yisrael. It is grazing land, and we have livestock'.

They said further: 'If we have found favor in your eyes, give us - your servants - this land as our inheritance, and do not cause us to cross over the Jordan River (to Canaan)' (BeMidbar 32:1-5).

Impressed by the expansive and fertile territories located just east of the Jordan River, the so-called 'Two and One Half' tribes express their desire to remain behind and to settle those areas as their own. It should be immediately noted that their aspirations are openly predicated on the fact that they have much livestock and herds.

Curiously, the Hebrew text inserts a pause in the midst of their petition, for after their mention of livestock and herds (verse 4), there follows a paragraph break before the narrative resumes with their formal request to remain behind (verse 5). Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel (15th century, Spain) understands this textual cue as an indication of hesitation on their part, as if they were reluctant to openly express their desire to not accompany the other tribes into the Land of Canaan:

"Behold, they initially stated their demand allusively and indirectly, for indeed they were ashamed to declare it explicitly. By making mention of their vast herds and drawing attention to the suitability of the eastern lands for grazing, they had implied their intent…Moshe, having understood their insinuation, remained silent and unmoved, and thus they were forced to restate their request openly and unambiguously."

Thus, for Abarbanel, the desire of the Two and One Half tribes to remain behind was understood even by them as inappropriate. This is presumably because their decision could undermine the confidence of the nation as they prepare to embark on wars of conquest westward, and could as well breed divisiveness among the tribes. As we shall see, however, the Midrashim on the matter detect even more ominous undercurrents in their words.

Moshe's Response and the Compromise

Moshe's immediate response to their request is at once forceful and straightforward.

"Moshe answered the descendants of Gad and Reuven saying: shall your brothers go to war while you remain here? Why are you discouraging Bnei Yisrael from crossing over into the land that God has given them? This is the same thing that your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. They went as far as the valley of Eshkol and saw the land, but discouraged Bnei Yisrael so that they could not enter the land that God gave them…Now behold you have risen up in the place of your fathers, a brood of transgressors, to bring even more of God's wrath upon Israel. If you turn away from Him, He will leave us in the wilderness and you will have destroyed this whole people" (BeMidbar 32:6-15).

Moshe vividly recalls the conduct of the Spies whose negative report dissuaded the people from entering the land, and thus brought disaster upon that generation. He perceives a similar threat in the request of the Two and One Half tribes, whose intentions, though not as sinister, could very well bring about a similar consequence.

No doubt prepared for his reaction, the tribes of Reuven and Gad soothe Moshe's misgivings by offering to settle their flocks and families eastwards, and then to provide a significant advance force to accompany the rest of the people of Israel over the Jordan River. They solemnly pledge not to return to their homes until the rest of Israel is securely settled in their new land. Moshe accepts their compromise and instructs Elazar the Priest, Yehoshua bin Nun and the tribal leaders to ensure their compliance by not releasing the eastern lands to them until the wars of conquest have been completed. Thus, the crisis is averted.

The Challenge of Wealth

What is the reason that the Torah records this episode at such great length? How are we to make sense of the request of Reuven and Gad, and why does Moshe perceive it as such a threat to the continuity of the people of Israel? Were there any long-term consequences to the fateful decision of these tribes to remain behind, and if so, how were they a direct function of their initial motives?

The Midrashic literature tends to view the conduct of the Two and One Half tribes in singularly negative light. Cross over the Jordan River (to Canaan)' (BeMidbar 32:1-5). Impressed by the expansive and fertile territories located just east of the Jordan River, the so-called 'Two and One Half' tribes express their desire to remain behind and to settle those areas as their own. It should be immediately noted that their aspirations are openly predicated on the fact that they have much livestock and herds. Curiously, the Hebrew text inserts a pause in the midst of their petition, for after their mention of livestock and herds (verse 4), there follows a paragraph break before the narrative resumes with their formal request to remain behind (verse 5). Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel (15th century, Spain) understands this textual cue as an indication of hesitation on their part, as if they were reluctant to openly express their desire to not accompany the other tribes into the Land of Canaan: "Behold, they initially stated their demand allusively and indirectly, for indeed they were ashamed to declare it explicitly. By making mention of their vast herds and drawing attention to the suitability of the eastern lands for grazing, they had implied their intent…Moshe, having understood their insinuation, remained silent and unmoved, thus they were forced to restate their request openly and unambiguously."

Thus, for Abarbanel, the desire of the Two and One Half tribes to remain behind was understood even by them as inappropriate. This is presumably because their decision could undermine the cod's all-powerful will? Rather, the Midrash seems to be suggesting, 'wealth and possessions that are gifts of Heaven and acquired through the strength of the Torah' is a description of not simply the source of these things, but of their essential value as well. To regard one's riches as a 'gift of Heaven' means to realize that they have no intrinsic value but are only vehicles for the achievement of a higher purpose. When one's possessions acquire an essential value of their own and become the end rather than simply a means, the result is not infrequently estrangement from God and, more significantly, the spiritual despondency that tends to accompany that estrangement.

The Midrash proffers that the wealth of these tribes, the abundant flocks of cattle and sheep that constituted their assets, was not simply the motivation behind their request, but actually the ultimate cause of their premature downfall. The desire to remain on the eastern banks of the Jordan was not only a prudent decision of economics, but also a definitive statement of their misplaced values. To cross the river and to enter the land with the other tribes meant to embrace a national destiny that placed spiritual goals ahead of material ones, and the Two and One Half tribes were unable to make that commitment. The preference to remain behind was therefore a conscious decision to structure their lives according to a value system that championed material achievement ahead of all else. The opportunity to experience the intimacy of God's presence, the prospect of a unique spiritual dimension to living afforded by fulfillment of the Torah within the confines of the 'Promised Land,' were insufficient to tear those tribes away from their concern for their flocks.

Proceeding one step further, the Midrash (also quoted by Rashi) maintains that such misplaced values may in fact be the cause of rather extreme consequences:

"…the descendents of Reuven and Gad treated things that are most important as secondary, and the secondary things as most important. They valued their possessions even more than the lives of their children, for did they not exclaim to Moshe 'we shall erect sheepfolds for our flocks and cities for our children' (32:16), thus showing more concern for their sheep? Moshe, in contrast, responded 'build cities for your young ones and erect fences for your sheep' (32:24), thus placing the children ahead of the possessions!" (BeMidbar Rabba 22:9).

It is of course very significant that in Biblical Hebrew, the word for flocks, appearing in this context as well, is 'miKNeH.' This term is derived from the root KNH, which signifies acquisition. Thus, 'mikneh' means the flocks that constitute one's possessions, for in ancient times flocks were an overt indication of one's material success. To possess flocks meant to be wealthy. In the modern age, where much of humanity lives in an urban setting, this measure is no longer relevant, but the challenge of wealth that faced the Two and One Half Tribes has not changed one iota.

The Assyrian Exile

Finally, the Midrash ascribes grave historical consequences to the decision of the Two and One half tribes to settle eastwards. In reality, the Jordan River constituted a natural boundary between these tribes and their brethren who dwelt in the Land of Israel proper, and this tended to accentuate their isolation from the national agenda even in times of peace (see for instance Yehoshua/Joshua Chapter 22). At times of conflict, this disconnection was even more pronounced.

When the Assyrian Empire began to push westwards in the 8th century BCE, many smaller kingdoms in the region were overrun and exiled. The so-called 'Ten Tribes' that constituted the Northern Kingdom of Israel were also displaced by a series of hostile incursions by the Assyrian Kings, campaigns that culminated in the fall of the capital of Shomron in 722 BCE. Among the first tribes to be exiled to Assyria were the Two and One Half tribes that dwelt on the East Bank, since their region was geographically the most exposed to the Assyrian menace.

Utilizing an approach to be found in Biblical as well as in Rabbinic thought, the Midrash searches for the underlying spiritual causes of the historical events associated with the exile, and detects faint echoes in the events of our Parasha. When a people loses sight of its national mission and its spiritual identity, and instead embraces material attainment as the only meaningful goal worth pursuing, then the inevitable result must be the dissolution of that national structure. It cannot be otherwise, for the life of a nation, like the lives of the individuals of whom it is composed, requires powerful ideas to sustain and nourish it. Only by maintaining a steadfast grasp on our heritage and remaining always cognizant of our spiritual objectives will it be possible to attain our national destiny, whether east of the Jordan or west of it.

Shabbat Shalom