Judaism: Divrei Azriel: Road Paved with Good Intentions
Beginnings are crucial. How we start has lasting repercussions for the rest of our endeavor and often impacts the results.
The end of Parshas Matos begins the settling of the Jewish People’s inheritance. The story describes how Gad and Reuven negotiate with Moshe for the right to settle not in Eretz Yisrael proper, but across the river in the land conquered from Sichon and Og. While the story seems simple and straightforward, nuances in the discussion offer perspective on our home and our lives here.
The basic storyline is as follows: The tribe of Gad and Reuven approach Moshe and offhandedly remark that they have lots of cattle and the land of Sichon and Og is good for grazing. The text then contains a stuma, a break in the conversation, and then the tribes start again requesting the right to settle there. Moshe goes into a tirade, comparing them to the spies and their destructive actions.
Gad and Reuven respond that they will only settle the land and build infrastructure, but they will still march before Bnai Yisrael in their conquest. Moshe responds that if they go into battle before Hashem then they can have the land, and if they don’t they must inherit with everyone else in Eretz Yisrael. Gad and Reuven accept and say they will do exactly as Moshe says.
There are two oddities in the story, intentionally highlighted in the previous summary, which stand out.
One is the pause. Moshe was no fool—it’s blatantly obvious what Gad and Reuven were asking for. So why did Moshe wait for them to ask explicitly?
The second anomaly is the change from “before Bnai Yisrael” to “Hashem;” Moshe stresses the change no less than three times, and the tribes respond stressing they will do exactly as Moshe says and will go before Hashem, also three times. Why these changes? What’s happening behind the scenes?
The Medrash Tanchuma famously notes another change—Gad and Reuven initially say they first want to build infrastructure for their cattle and families, and then they will go fight alongside the Bnai Yisrael, and Moshe responds that they may build for their families and cattle and then fight and they will thus be allowed to inherit this land. The Medrash says we see from this change that the tribes put more value on their money than their families, and Moshe was criticizing them for this.
Perhaps we can similarly suggest that Moshe was pausing to ascertain their intentions and priorities. The implied request revealed nothing and Moshe was concerned that something was amiss. He therefore paused and forced them to explicate their exact request and thereby reveal their thoughts.
What Moshe discovered in the course of the negotiations was frightening. Gad and Reuven, besides being more focused on their money than on their families, viewed their obligation as being “before Bnai Yisrael” and not “before Hashem.”
To add to the contrast, in Devarim and Sefer Yehoshua both Moshe and Yehoshua describe how they should go up as “before your brothers.” Gad and Reuven didn’t view their obligation as familial or even religious—but only as a contract, a means to the end of getting the land they wanted. There would be neither passion nor emotion in their joining in the ranks of Bnai Yisrael, only cold calculations and a desire to feed to their cattle.
Moshe demanded that they refine and redefine their intentions and priorities; to not focus on themselves, their money or their own personal goals and desires. Rather they must look higher and realize their obligations to a more lofty ethic—to realize that they are morally and religiously required to help. Moshe wanted them to realize that conquering Eretz Yisrael isn’t just a utilitarian exercise, but something that Hashem Himself wants us to do.
This was just one level higher—moving from a personal desire to a moral, religious obligation.
Later Moshe and Yehoshua pushed for an even higher level: to not just go and fight “before Hashem,” as part of a moral and religious responsibility—but to go “before your brothers,” to go as part of a family; to go as one. Moshe and Yehoshua wanted the Jewish people to not just focus on themselves and be selfish, and not to merely be solely dedicated to Hashem and be moral, ethical, religious people. They wanted us to be a family, to treat each other as brothers—to feel compassion, and be caring of one another.
As the Jews began settling into their homeland, Moshe wanted to impart a lasting message and an eternal focus that should part of their, and our, endeavor. Our focus should never be on ourselves, even if we are honest and upright. Our focus shouldn’t even be solely on Hashem, and individually growing spiritually and ethically.
Our focus should be on building our home—a home where all Jews live together as a family. Where we care for the brother who we agree with, and we care even more for the brother who we disagree with. we must strive for a home full of love; a home where we are one. Hinei Ma Tov uMa Naim, Sheves Achim Gam Yachad
The Source of Am Yisrael’s Eternity
In this week’s parsha Moshe is commanded to assemble an army to “execute Hashem’s vengeance” (Bmidbar 31:3) on the people of Midyan.
Rashi is bothered by the phrasing of the pasuk as “Hashem’s vengeance”; is there really such a concept of Hashem exacting revenge? Furthermore, Hashem was not attacked, rather the Jewish people were! Shouldn’t the vengeance should be theirs?
To answer these questions, Rashi states that one who stands in opposition to Klal Yisroel is really standing in opposition to Hashem. The Maharal explains that the name of Hashem eternally rests upon Klal Yisroel and therefore one who acts against the Jews essentially attacking Hashem Himself.
What emerges from the Maharal’s explanation is a fundamental principle in understanding the eternity of the Jewish people. At our core we are inextricably linked to Hashem and therefore since He is eternal, we too are eternal. [This idea may explain the gemara’s statement (Temurah 15) that the tzibbur (public) never dies.]
What is the source for this deep connection to Hashem? Perhaps it can be explained based on the gemara (Brachos 21) which quotes the pasuk “I will call out in the name of Hashem [learning Torah], and ascribe greatness our God [and make a bracha” (Devarim 32:3) as the biblical source for making birkas hatorah.
The Maharsha explains that when we study Torah we are really studying the names of Hashem, since His names are woven into the fabric of the Torah. As such, through our Torah learning we bring the Shem Hashem down, and become part of that name so that our troubles are His troubles, and our vengeance is His vengeance.