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Where Did the Tribes of Reuven and Gad Go Wrong?

By Tzvi Fishman
7/20/2011, 7:06 AM

Believe it or not, the goal of the Jewish People is not to become stand-up comics, nor all-star investment bankers, nor to fill up the condos in South Florida. The goal of the Jewish People is to establish the Kingdom of G-d in the world by living our unique Torah life in the Holy Land, as the Prophet says: “For out of Zion the Torah shall go forth, and the word of the L-rd out of Yerushalayim” (Isaiah, 2:3). Only in this way will the world come to recognize the One and Only Master of the Universe and learn to serve Him with a joyous heart.

Understanding this, we can better comprehend Moshe’s anger when the tribes of Reuven and Gad requested to settle on the other side of the Yarden. Once again, we will turn to the esteemed Rabbi of Har Bracha, HaRav Eliezer Melamed, shlita. In his soon to be published book, “The Nation and the Land,” he writes:   

At first, Moshe Rabbeinu did not intend to conquer the eastern side of the Jordan River, even though it is part of the Land of Israel. His intention was to first settle the western side of the Jordan, due to its higher level of holiness. He intended to strengthen and consolidate the initial settlement, and then expand the conquest to all the borders of the Land. However, before Israel reached the Jordan River, Sichon and Og attacked.  Israel defeated them, and thus conquered their territory on the eastern side of the river (see Bamidbar, 21:21-35. Also, Ramban, there).

When the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who possessed great herds of sheep and cattle, saw that the region was good for grazing, they approached Moshe, requesting that he exempt them from crossing over the Jordan. Instead, they asked that their inheritance fall on the eastern side of the river – also a part of Eretz Yisrael - since it was suitable for their herds.

Moshe Rabbeinu’s answer was surprisingly harsh. First, he condemned them, saying, “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?!” (Bamidbar, 32:6). Furthermore, he blamed them for repeating the sin of the Spies, who rebelled against Hashem by persuading the nation not to continue on their journey through the wilderness to conquer and settle the Promised Land. Their refusal to go up and possess the Land, as God had commanded them, brought about the Divine decree that the entire generation would die in the desert. And behold, here once again, the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe, were causing Israel to falter by not wanting to take part in the conquest of the Land! Because their decision might bring a terrible disaster upon the nation, like in the case of the Spies, Moshe chastised them at length (see, Bamidbar, 32:7-15).

When Moshe finished his rebuke, the members of the tribes of Reuven and Gad answered, saying that their intention was not to evade the war, but rather they would first build enclosures for their livestock, and build cities for their children, and afterwards, go out as an advance guard in front of the armies of Israel to conquer all the Land. Only after all the tribes were settled in their respective inheritances would they return to the fertile grazing lands on the eastern side of the Jordan. Seemingly, after this generous promise, Moshe Rabbeinu should have been reconciled with them, perhaps even apologizing for his suspicions. Indeed, Moshe agreed that if they led the nation in battle, they would be blameless before God and Israel. Nevertheless, from his response, it still seems that he was concerned that they would not fulfill their words. Therefore, he once again demanded that they commit themselves explicitly, with a double stipulation, solidifying their commitment to partake in the conquest of the Land.  

Ostensibly, Moshe Rabbeinu’s reaction must be questioned - why didn’t he wait to hear everything that the tribes of Reuven and Gad had to say? Why did he start to rebuke them with harsh accusations without first clarifying if they were willing to participate in conquering the Land? And why, after they told him that they were ready to participate, and even lead the way, did he continue to treat them suspiciously?

The reason is that there was a fundamental problem with their desire to inherit the eastern side of the Jordan. Their order of priorities was faulty. Their motive for desiring to inherit that specific portion of the Land wasn't because they felt a deep connection to it, as a place where they could fulfill the unique goal of revealing the Name of God in the world. Rather, they simply were concerned about their possessions. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that if their underlying reason for settling the Land did not stem from the exalted value of fulfilling the Covenant with God to reveal the Divine Presence in the world, their connection to the Land would be weak, and God forbid, they would lose their grip on it – a tragic outcome that we have seen in our time, when portions of Eretz Yisrael have been handed over to enemies because of a flawed attachment to the Land and a superficial understanding of  Israel’s Divine mission in being here.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad also showed a flawed orientation toward their children in valuing their possessions first, as seen in their request to Moshe: “We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock, and cities for our children” (Bamidbar, 32:16).  Rashi notes, on the basis of Tanchuma 7, that “They were more concerned about their possessions than about their sons and daughters, since they spoke first about their livestock and then about their children.” Moshe corrected them by placing priorities in the proper order, telling them to first “build for yourselves cities for your children” and afterwards “enclosures for your sheep” (there, verse 24).

Therefore, even after Reuven and Gad promised to be the first to go out to war, Moshe Rabbeinu remained suspicious. He knew that if they did not elevate their motives above their own private material concerns for their livestock and families, to the higher intention of inheriting the Land together with all of Israel, in order to reveal the word of God in the world, they would not be successful.

As our Sages have said (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7), there are wealthy people who don’t understand that wealth is a gift from Heaven. Instead, their craving for riches controls them, to the point where they are removed from the world, along with their wealth. “And thus you find concerning the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who were wealthy and possessed large herds. They cherished their wealth, preferring to reside outside of the Land of Israel. Therefore, they were exiled first amongst all the tribes, as it is written, ‘And he carried away the Reuveni, and the Gadi, and the half tribe of Menashe’ (Divrei Hayamim 1, 5:26). What caused this? It was due to the fact that they separated themselves from their brothers because of their possessions” (When Chazal state that Reuven and Gad chose to live “outside of the Land of Israel,” the meaning is outside of the main area of holiness of the Land, as clarified in Ch.4:5 of this book).

They still had the opportunity to rectify their faulty orientation to the Torah and Eretz Yisrael after the Land was conquered, when they returned to the eastern bank of the Jordan. But sensing that the region they had chosen was less sanctified then the western bank of the river, they brazenly erected an altar for themselves. (Chazal teach, “The Land of Canaan is suitable to house the Shechinah, while the other side of the Jordan is not fitting to house the Shechinah” Bamidbar Rabbah 7:8). Yehoshua warned them not to proceed, “However, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass over to the Land of possession of the Lord, where the Lord’s Tabernacle dwells, and take up possession amongst us; but rebel not against the Lord, nor rebel against us in building an altar for yourselves besides the altar of the Lord our God” (Yehoshua, 22:19). But they didn’t take heed and were eventually the first of the tribes to be exiled. 

(From the book, “The Nation and the Land” by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed)

Now do you understand why preferring to live outside the Land of Israel is such a big mistake?