This Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome
- Please Read!
Moses said to the members of the tribes of Gad and Reuben, "Shall your brothers go to war and you remain here? …You have risen up in place of your fathers as a culture of wicked people, to add yet more to the burning wrath of G-d against Israel" (32:6,14).
The text above was part of the Moses' reply to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, when they requested to be allowed to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, on the land recently conquered from Sichon and Og.
On the face of it their petition was reasonable. The text states that they had 'abundant cattle' and that the land in question was suitable for grazing (32:1). Reuben and Gad had already participated in the conquest of the land on the east bank of the Jordan: the text (e.g. 21:24) does not imply otherwise. The two tribes, like all the Israelites, had already seen that G-d assisted them in the campaigns that He directed - against all odds. And afterwards, when they explained their true motives, he agreed to let those two tribes settle in that part of Trans-Jordan. So why did Moses describe their initial suggestion as a product of a 'culture of wicked people'?
A similar situation occurred again some fifteen years later after Joshua divided up the Land amongst the tribes. The same two and a half tribes had been very fully engaged in the wars conquering the Holy Land, and, when their work was completed, they returned to Trans-Jordan, where they had settled with Moses' agreement. They then built a symbolic communal altar in their locality. When the Israelite leaders under Joshua heard about it, they immediately prepared for civil war. They then sent their senior representatives to Trans-Jordan saying that their building an altar was an act of rebellion against G-d. As the Radak (to Josh. 22:12) explains, they thought that the two and half tribes were building a local altar for sacrifices, and such arrangements were forbidden so long as the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) were functioning. However, when they explained their true motives to the other tribes, they were accepted. For the altar was to be a reminder to future generations that, despite geographical separation, they 'would serve G-d… (in the appropriate location), and that in the future, "your children should not say to our children that… (we) have no portion in the Almighty"' (Josh. 22:27).
In both cases - first under Moses, and secondly under Joshua, the tribes of Reuben and Gad appear to have been wrongly accused before the merits of their case had been investigated - and subsequently approved! The Talmud brings the Torah tradition that one must judge a person in the scale of merit (Avot 1:6). Why were they not given the benefit of the doubt before they had the opportunity to explain themselves?
One explanation may be found in considering how far the rule of giving the benefit of the doubt extends. Going further from the above sources, Scripture implies that there are certain cases that one should not give the benefit of the doubt. The Talmud (Nazir 23a) brings the following discussion:
What is the meaning Scripture's saying: "For the ways of G-d are upright. The righteous shall walk with them and the transgressors shall stumble with them"? (Hosea 14:10)… An illustration of this may be found by looking at the story of Lot and his two daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). The daughters intended to do a good deed [They provided their father with intoxicating wine, and subsequently lured him in making them pregnant in the honest belief that after the destruction of Sodom they were the only people left, and they did not want the human population to become extinct.] Lot intended to do a sin. [As the Talmud explains ad loc., he should have not allowed himself to become drunk the second time, as he knew that he had inadvertently committed incest on the first occasion through drinking wine.]
The judgment of the Talmud on Lot seems harsh. Maybe Lot shared his daughters' concern about the future of humanity. Or perhaps he knew that only Sodom and not the whole world was destroyed, but he genuinely believed that he would not commit a second act of incest even if he drank wine.
Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Lot's wish to go to the wealthy, but evil city of Sodom in the first place (Gen. 13:10) reflects on his general propensity to sin. Therefore the rule of giving him the benefit of the doubt does not apply.
With this principle in mind, examine the background and requests of the tribes of Reuben and Gad on those two occasions.
Reuben himself - the father of the tribe - had been described by his father Jacob as being, "unstable, like water," (Gen. 49:4) - following his interfering with his father's marital arrangements (ibid. 35:22). Later on, members of the tribe of Reuben led the revolt of Korach against Moses. And in addition, the commentators note the following points about their request to Moses that appeared improper:
Greed: the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 22:7) brings the tradition that the tribes of Reuben and Gad who had 'many cattle' (32:1) loved their wealth. They wanted to isolate themselves from the other tribes to enjoy their material gains. Therefore (as the Midrashic tradition continues) they were the first tribes to be exiled.
Fear and lack of faith: implied, according to the Akeidah in their words, "do not make us cross the Jordan" (32:5). Shirking communal responsibility: when Jacob blessed his sons before his death, he highlighted the individualities of each tribe. Gad's strengths were in military leadership: 'Gad will march out as a regiment' (Gen. 49:19 - see Rashi there). So in asking Moses 'not to make us cross the Jordan' (32:5), Gad effectively refused to contribute his special skills which were a vital part of the G-d-ordained mosaic of the Israelites.
Unethical priorities: later in their exchange with Moses, they proposed to build 'pens for their cattle and cities for their children'. Rashi (32:16) points out the obvious defect in their order of preferences.
So like with Lot, the request of the tribe of Reuben and his neighbor Gad (2:14) emerged from a background tinged with greed, and association with the wicked. Therefore Moses did not give them the benefit of the doubt. Indeed it would have been wrong of him to do so when their behavior was seen as a threat to physical and spiritual well-being of the Israelites (32:7-15).
In eventually agreeing to their wish to settle in Trans-Jordan subject to their helping the other tribes conquer the Land, he attached an important proviso: "You shall be clean from G-d and Israel". The Talmud (Yoma 38a) understands this to mean that it is not enough to know that one's actions are proper in G-d's eyes. One must endeavor to avoid behaving suspiciously amongst people.
When the two and a half tribes built the altar on their return from the conquest they seemed to have forgotten that point. They did not consider how their behavior - meritorious as it was - appeared to the other tribes as a rebellion against G-d. They did not initially send a message with their intentions to the Israelites explaining the reason for the altar. They had therefore disregarded what Moses had told them - specially - to conduct themselves above suspicion. Therefore they were not given the benefit of the doubt.
We learn from this discussion that however praiseworthy it is to give someone the benefit of the doubt, one should also exercise caution if the background and facts of the case warrant it, and certainly if the fates of other people are involved. In addition, one must avoid arousing suspicion in others.
"So you shall find favor and good understanding in the eyes of G-d and Man" (Prov. 3:4).
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON MATTOT-MASSEI
1. Following Rashi's commentary, in what two ways may a person be absolved from nedarim - vows? What is the difference between those two methods? To which people and in what circumstances do these methods apply?
2. From where, according to Rashi, may it be derived that a person who causes someone else to sin is subject to Divine punishment - as though he did the sin himself?
3. From where may it be learnt that Balaam was personally responsible for the Israelites' sin with Baal Peor?
4. What Halachot applying to utensils today may be learnt from the passage on the spoils taken in the war against Midian?
5. Why were the spoils of Midianite jewelry passed on to Moses (31:50) described as 'atoning for our souls before G-d' - according to the S'forno?
6. Why, according to the Midrash Hagadol, were the tribes of Reuben and Gad criticized by Moses for requesting to settle on the east bank of the Jordan? How, following Rashi, did Moses draw this fault to their attention?
7. Where, according to the Ramban, is the positive command to live in the Holy Land stated in the Torah?
8. Why, according to the S'forno, were the borders of the nine and a half tribes on the west bank of the Jordan described separately from the two and a half tribes on the east bank of the Jordan?
9. The Torah states that the tribes collectively had to contribute forty-eight cities to the Levites - including open areas for cattle, and farmland. Given that an actual city is 1,000 cubits in diameter, how many square cubits in total would the Levites receive for that city and its surroundings - based on 35:5 - (a) according to Rashi and (b) according to the Ramban?
10. Following the Talmud (Makkot 9b), what four types of homicide are described in this Parasha, and what are the judicial consequences for each category?
11. What problem was posed by the decision to allow the daughters of Zelaphchad inherit their deceased father's portion in the Land? How was that problem solved (a) in the short run (following the text) and (b) in the long run (following the derivation in the Talmud: Bava Bathra 120a)?
ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON MATTOT-MASSEI
1. Following Rashi's commentary, the two ways may a person be absolved from nedarim are as follows:
(i) The vow may become 'loosened' (hatara)- non binding, by a person who is an expert in the laws of vows. This is not explicit in the Torah, but it is within Torah tradition, hinted at by the words 'this is the matter'(30:2) - meaning each way of absolution from vows must be carried out in the appropriate way. In the case of hatara - which applies to all people who make vows - the matter is put before expert and he may find that the vow was wrongly based - asking the person, for example, 'had you known that the vow would have included the unforeseen circumstance you are in now, would you have made the vow?' If he or she says no, the expert has the power to say that the vow was made in mistaken circumstances and is not a vow at all.
(ii) The vow may be revoked - (hafara) - and this is method explicit in the Parasha. This applies to vows made by women only. If she is an unmarried 'na'ara' (30:4 - on the threshold of adulthood - normally twelve years old), she is considered old enough to know what she is doing, but she is still under the jurisdiction of her own father. He has the power (even if he is not an expert in the laws of vows) to void all vows she makes on the day he hears about them. Once she passes a few months reaching adulthood, she leaves her father's authority and she becomes fully liable for fulfilling her own vows. In addition, a husband may also revoke his wife's vows - whatever age she may be - so long as they are of such a nature as they interfere with their well-being (30:14).
Hatara declares that there was never any vow to start with, in effect voiding them in the past, present, and future. Hafara acknowledges the vow, but voids them in the future only.
2. The text states: 'If he revokes them after he heard them (Rashi: after he himself approved the vows), he shall bear his iniquity' (30:16). This means that the woman subsequently acted on the basis that her vow had been voided, where in fact it had not. As the father or husband had misled the woman, he 'bears his iniquity' - he is held responsible by the Almighty. From there it may be derived that a person who causes someone else to sin is subject to Divine punishment - as though he did the sin himself.
3. Balaam's personal responsibility for the Israelites' sin with Baal Peor is explicitly mentioned in Moses' anger at the Israelite forces for sparing the Midianite women: 'for they, by the word of Balaam, caused the Israelites to do an act of betrayal against G-d over the matter of Peor' (31:16).
4. The following Halachot applying to utensils today may be learnt from the passage on the spoils taken in the war against the idolatrous Midianites:
(i) vessels of non-Israelite origin made out of metal must purified in fire to burn out any forbidden substances (31:22-23).
(ii) vessels of non-Israelite origin which have not absorbed forbidden substances may be purified by immersion - tevilat keilim. (31:23).
5. The spoils of Midianite jewelry were passed on to Moses as 'atoning for our souls before G-d', means, according to the S'forno, that the atonement was for the entire nation, which permitted the conduct at Peor to take place without protest.
6. The basis of Moses' distress at the requests of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle on the east bank of the Jordan was that they would be seen by the other tribes as trying to get out of the fighting to conquer the land, with its attendant consequences (32:6-15). According to the Midrash Hagadol, that was aggravated by those tribes paying attention to their having 'much cattle' (32:1), even though in reality they had no more than the other tribes. They were rebuked because they paid too much attention to their own material possessions. Indeed, Rashi points out that they told Moses that they would build 'pens for their flocks and cities for their children' (32:16). Moses told them to build 'cites for their children' and - only then, according to Rashi, 'pens for their flocks (32:24) - children first, property after!
7. The Ramban derives the positive command to live in the Holy Land from the words: 'You shall possess the Land and settle in it: for I have given the Land to you to possess' (33:53).
8. According to the S'forno, the borders of the nine and a half tribes on the west bank of the Jordan are described separately from the two and a half tribes on the east bank of the Jordan, because the former were to be apportioned by lot (33:54), whereas the latter had already been distributed by Moses in his own lifetime.
9. The Torah states that cities of the Levites should come complete with two thousand cubits measured around them in all directions (35:5). Whether that area includes the city or not is debated by the commentaries.
(a) Rashi holds that the two thousand cubits should be measured from the periphery of the actual settlement in all four directions. Thus in the example in the question:
- the city area would be 1,000 cubits x 1,000 cubits =1,000,000 square cubits
- the land for farming and cattle would be 2,000 cubits in all directions from the edge of the city - thus the whole area would be, in cross section, 5,000 cubits. 5,000 cubits x 5,000 cubits = 25,000,000 square cubits - comprising of the above mentioned 1,000,000 square cubits for the city itself, and the remaining 24,000,000 square cubits for farming and cattle-ranching land.
(b) The Ramban holds that the measuring of two thousand cubits is the total cross section of the city and farming/cattle-ranching environs in all directions. Thus the whole area ceded to the Levites would be 2,000 cubits x 2,000 cubits = 4,000,000 square cubits - much smaller than according to Rashi. A quarter of the area - 1,000,000 square cubits - would be occupied by the actual city - the remaining three quarters of the total land area would surround the city on all directions - mainly used for cattle ranching, farmland being at the corners of the total land ceded.
10. The Talmud (Makkot 9b) derives from the Parasha four categories of taking life:
(i). The act was completely accidental - the perpetrator is absolved of responsibility (implied from the slight degree of negligence needed to qualify for exile in 35:22-25).
(ii). The act was completely unintentional, but with a small element of carelessness - the person committing the act is exiled to a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, as in the examples given 35:22-23
(iii). The act was intentional, but with insufficient evidence; or there was a high degree of negligence - bringing it near to the category of intentional. In those cases, the Court cannot act: the neglect makes the circumstances too serious for the city of refuge, but the evidence is not strong enough for the Court to punish directly (implied by the requirement of the weapon's having to be lethal [35:16-18] for the death penalty to be imposed on one side, and the small degree of negligence for the city of refuge [35:22-23] on the other.)
(iv) The killing was intentional - the murderer is liable to execution by the Court - explicit in 35:16-19.
11. The problem posed by the decision to allow the daughters of Zelaphchad inherit their deceased father's portion in the Land was as follows. Were they to marry anyone outside their own tribe, the property would pass in perpetuity from their own tribe of Menasseh to a different tribe (36:3-4). Thus Moses relayed G-d's ruling that (a) in the short run, women in such a situation would only be allowed to marry within their tribes, so that land should remain within the tribe (36:5-9) (b) that rule was temporary: it was only to last as long as the Israelites had not taken their portion in the Land ('in order that the Israelites should succeed to the inheritance of his fathers' - 36:8). Once that happened, the property became fixed within the tribe's inheritance, and women succeeding their next-of-kin would be able to marry from whatever tribe they wished in the knowledge that their real estate would always remain within the realm of their own tribe. (Indeed the Talmud [Taanit 30a] relates that this prohibition was lifted after the Land was apportioned, and the anniversary of that event - the Fifteenth of Av, became a time of celebration.)
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON MATTOT-MASSEI
Moses said to the children of Gad and Reuben, "Shall your brothers go to war and you remain here? …You have risen up in place of your fathers as a culture of wicked people, to add yet more to the burning wrath of G-d against Israel" (32:6,14).
The above was part of the Moses' reply to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, when they requested to be allowed to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, on the land recently conquered from Sichon and Og.
On the face of it their petition was reasonable. The text states that they had 'abundant cattle' and that the land in question was suitable for grazing (32:1). Reuben and Gad had already participated in the conquest of the land on the east bank of the Jordan: the text (e.g. 21:24) does not imply otherwise. The two tribes, like all the Israelites, had already seen that G-d assisted them in the campaigns He directed - against all odds. So why did Moses describe their suggestion as a product of a culture of wicked people?
*My attempt to write on this issue may be found in Shema Yisrael forMattot-Massei in 5760
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
For information on subscriptions, archives, and