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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).
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.
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