5768 - #36
In reading Nechama Leibowitz, Studies
in Bamidbar, Mattot 2, Mammon or Eretz
Of course, as evidenced within this article itself, there
are many sources that do point to an interest, by these
tribes, in their material possessions. As further
indicated by the words of Rashi, Bamidbar 32:16,
it also seems that there was a significant problem with
the value they gave to their concern for property. Moshe Rabbeinu
also does correct them, albeit subtly, for the importance
that they give their cattle. The tribes were also
eventually punished for this concern for their cattle as
they were, as described in Divrei Hayamim I 5:26,
the first to experience exile at the hands of the
Assyrians.3 Yet, it still remains that the
text does not seem to indicate that this concern for
property was Moshes concern. It indeed may have
been a problem but it does not seem to be the specific
problem that concerned Moshe, leading him to chastise
them and compare them to the spies. In a certain way,
these two-and-a-half tribes actually performed a service
to the nation. The
There actually is a further difficulty with the
contention that there was a problem with the very request
of Reuven and Gad for land on the other side of the
On the surface, the story could be reduced to the following skeleton. The tribes of Reuven and Gad request specific land. Moshe Rabbeinu misunderstands the motivation behind their petition and criticizes them. The tribes respond admirably to Moshes charge indicating that his perceived understanding of their motivation was incorrect. The result is that their request is met. But what about the original request, more specifically, the actual motivation behind this request? On the surface, it would seem, from the text, not to be a problem. Bamidbar 32:1 begins with the statement that the tribes of Reuven and Gad had much cattle, almost with an implication that a request to have land that favours this cattle is understandable. It is only Moshes misunderstanding of their motivation that seems to have created the confrontation; the subsequent solution works for it shows Moshe that he was wrong. This is where Nechama Leibowizs point has great significance. What she effectively shows is that there was still a problem with the original motivation; furthermore, Moshe knew this as well. If so, why is this not portrayed in the text? Why is the request met? The answer lies in the distinction in these problematic motivations and how we are to respond.
The motivation to take care of ones cattle is not inherently problematic. This is the very purpose of land to support the nations economy. A desire for Eretz Yisrael should include a desire to benefit from the land for the only true way to extol a lands greatness is by experiencing how wonderful the land is for meeting a lands purpose to the nation. It is based upon this principle that we can only understand the praises of the land the Hashem Himself presents. Yet we still must understand the parameters that we must place around such a concern; we must give it the proper priority. The problem with Reuven and Gad was that they did not do this; giving greater importance to their cattle then other values which do have greater priority such as protecting their children. Such a weakness, though, is to be met with education and not an attack upon the whole motivation. The motivation has value; it just needs direction. This is what Moshe did. Moshes perceived concern that they were motivated to avoid the war, though, could not be met in this manner. This is a motivation that cannot be tolerated and this indeed reflected Moshes actions. The point of Nechama Leibowitz is not to ignore the other lesson.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 The part of the tribe of
Menashe that was eventually included in this distribution
of land on this side of the
2 Moshe compares them to the spies who admitted that the land was bountiful yet expressed fear in confronting the inhabitants of the land in battle. See Bamidbar 13:28. .
3 See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bamidbar 32:16.
4 See Ramban, Bamidbar 32:16, 3316.
5 See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:2 with Radbaz. See, also, T.B. Arachin 32b with specific reference to Reuven and Gad.
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