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by Jacob Solomon

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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 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 He directed - against all odds. So why did Moses describe their suggestion as a product of a culture of wicked people?

One approach would be to look at two details of the proposal: firstly the emphasis on material possessions - cattle, and secondly the fact that Gad, of all tribes, initiated it (Ibn Ezra; see also 32:6, where Moses responds, putting Gad before Reuben). These are explained below.

The Midrash Hagadol comments that these tribes did not own substantially more cattle than the other tribes. Rather, the use of the word rav here, is to show that they attached more importance to their material possessions than other tribes. Indeed, 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 priorities.

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 - and 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 the part of the G-d-ordained mosaic of the Israelites.

This is similar to the following situation. The Talmud (Yoma 38a) condemns the conduct of the Beit Avtinas (towards the end of the Second Temple period), for keeping their unique talent secret, within the family. This was the skill of mixing the components of the ketoret in such a way that it would rise in a neat vertical column of smoke. They justified their refusal to teach this to others because they feared their skills might be learnt and applied to idol worship. The Talmud was unimpressed with this argument, applying to them the epithet and the name of the wicked shall rot (Prov. 10:7).

This argument would apply even further to the people of Gad, who had no 'defense', as did the Beit Avtinas. They were endowed with military leadership skills - specifically to effect G-d's plan of enabling the Israelites to conquer and settle into the Promised Land. By refusing to put into action at the right time the very skills G-d endowed them, they were indeed 'a culture of wicked people'…

This then shows us the importance of individuals and groups with special skills developing them to the full, and volunteering their use in community security and advancement.

The assembly shall rescue the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood… and he shall dwell in it (the city of refuge) until the death of the High Priest…(35:25).

The Talmud (Makkot 9b) derives from the Parasha four categories of taking life:

  1. The act was completely accidental - the perpetrator is absolved of responsibility.

  2. The act was completely unintentional, but with an element of carelessness - the person committing the act is exiled to a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.

  3. 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.

  4. The killing was intentional - the murderer is liable to execution by the Court.

The Talmud links the period of exile - the second category above - to the death of the High Priest, because he himself is seen as partly responsible. Had he prayed with sufficient intensity and sincerity, the killing would have not taken place. The Sforno expands this idea, saying that G-d links the nature of the accidental killings with the amount of time left over until the death of the High Priest. In His judgment, those with longer terms were more culpable, those with shorter periods were less.

Developing the idea of the Sforno, it comes out that the sentence of exile is unique in the Torah. Both the Court and G-d are involved. The Court directs him to the City of Refuge. G-d decides how long he should stay there. In all other cases in the Torah the Court either may or may not intervene. If the Court find the accused guilty, the Torah gives it the power to impose the full punishment.

A suggestion for this uniqueness is as follows. The Talmud derives the rule that a judge is only able to pass judgement on what his eyes can see (Nidda 20b). In the case of most offences, there are rules given for warning, witnesses, and assessment of evidence. The Torah, in involving the Court and G-d in carrying out the punishment of an accidental killing, is in effect saying that judging how much of the act was negligent and how much of it was by accident, is beyond the power of the human Court. This is an exceptional case where the principle of no judge can pass judgement except on what his eyes can see does not apply.



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