Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha tells of Moshe’s blessings to all the tribes before his passing. In his blessing to the tribe of Gad, Moshe makes mention of the fact that “va-yar reishit lo” (33:21)– Gad chose the “first,” referring, presumably, to Gad’s having chosen to permanently settle the region east of the Jordan River. Rather than waiting together with the rest of Benei Yisrael until the nation crossed the Jordan into Canaan, the land promised to their forefathers, Gad (and Reuven) preferred to make their permanent home east of the river, in the land seized from the kingdoms of Sichon and Og.
Moshe then explains that Gad preferred this region because “sham chelkat mechokeik safun.” This clause is difficult to translate, and indeed, we find different explanations among the commentators. Ibn Ezra claims that this refers to the large, luxurious castles that had belonged to the Emorite noblemen before Benei Yisrael conquered the area. In other words, Gad desired the land in order to benefit from the luxuries it offered. Ibn Ezra then explains the remainder of the verse as prophetically speaking in praise of Gad’s fulfilling their commitment to join the other tribes in battle across the Jordan River. Although Gad settled in the rich, fertile region where they enjoyed material prosperity, they nevertheless remained committed to their fellow tribes and fought in the front lines in their battle against the enemy nations in Canaan.
Rashi, however, based on the Sifrei, explains this verse differently. He writes that Gad wished to permanently settle east of the Jordan because the tribespeople realized that the “mechokeik” (“lawgiver”) – would be buried (“safun”) in that territory. Unwilling to part with Moshe Rabbenu even after his passing, the tribe of Gad expressed their desire to make the area of his burial site their permanent place of residence.
The Sifrei’s explanation appears to run in direct opposition to the account in Sefer Bamidbar (32), which states explicitly that the tribes of Reuven and Gad requested rights to permanently settle the territory of Sichon and Og due to the abundance of pasture. These tribes had especially large herds of cattle, and so they asked to make this verdant region their permanent home. Moshe initially excoriated Reuven and Gad for what he perceived as their cowardice, requesting to settle east of the Jordan out of fear of battle against the Canaanites, but these tribes then clarified that they fully intended to join the rest of the nation in the campaign to conquer Canaan. In any event, it is clear from the narrative there in Sefer Bamidbar that Gad and Reuven sought permanent residence in Trans-Jordan because of their cattle. How, then, did the Sifrei claim that they sought to reside there because they wanted to live near Moshe’s burial site?
Symbolically, the desire to permanent reside east of the Jordan, effectively expanding the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, represents bold innovation, expanding into new territory, pushing beyond familiar boundaries. Indeed, Moshe begins his blessing to the tribe of Gad with the proclamation, “Barukh marchiv Gad” – “Blessed is the one who expands [the territory of] Gad.” Gad is associated with expansion, reaching beyond current limits and extending outward. Innovative expansion often bespeaks scorn and disdain for the previous limits, a rejection of the old system and a desire to break free from what is perceived as stifling constraints. The introduction of something new quite often reflects a revolt against the current framework, rather than a desire to strengthen it. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Chazal spoke of Gad’s longing to settle in the region of Moshe’s gravesite. They may have sought to emphasize that Gad did not look to reject the initial boundaries that Moshe had envisioned. This was not a rebellion against Moshe and his leadership, but rather a desire to expand the sanctity and special quality of Eretz Yisrael outward. Their request did not stem from any disrespect towards Moshe, but rather with an intention to incorporate the new region within the Land of Israel. They spoke out of deep love and respect for Moshe, not out of disdain.
“Barukh marchiv Gad” – the Torah acknowledges the legitimacy, and value, of bold initiatives and expansion as part of the effort to strengthen and enhance religious observance. One of the critical, indispensable conditions, however, is that this is done out of deep respect and fealty to, and not out of rejection of, our tradition. It is only when we display the kind of devotion and loyalty to “Moshe Rabbenu” as the tribe of Gad did that our efforts to expand are deemed valid and worthy of being blessed.