By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Matot-Mas-ei (Numbers 30-36)
“We will build sheepfolds for our flocks and settlements for our children” (Numbers 32.16).
Commentators ancient and modern have found it necessary to provide some explanation for Moses’ agitated response, to put it mildly, to an seemingly innocent request on the part of the leaders of the Tribe of Reuben and Gad. Especially in the light of contemporary entrepreneurial standards a request which seems eminently practical (Bamidbar Rabbah Ad. Loc, Rashi).
What is the context? After an entire generation of wandering, the children of Israel find themselves at last at the point of entering the Land of Promise west of the Jordan River. But we are reminded that the livelihood of the Tribe of Reuben and Gad was based on their flocks and herds; sheep and cattle to begin with. But they have seen that the land east of the Jordan is marvelous grazing land, fine pastures. So the Reubenites and Gaddites request of Moses that they be allotted the land east of the Jordan rather than west of the Jordan along with the rest of the Israelites.
Moses explodes. He call them a “broad of sinners” implying the degenerate offspring of those, who a generation earlier, had weakened the will of the Israelites. The Israelites could have entered the land forty years earlier but for the fact that they were frightened by reports of those who had surveyed the land and who had reported back to the Israelites they could never enter or occupy it because the Canaanites “were like giants” and the Israelites in comparison to them were “like grasshoppers”.
Now Moses was saying that the Reubenites and Gaddites were again disheartening their fellow Israelites by remaining east of the Jordan and refusing to engage with the rest of the Israelites in the coming conflict with the Canaanites peoples west of the Jordan.
But it seems that Moses was mistaken! The flock herding tribe of Reuben and Gad inform Moses that they will in fact go into the conflict fully armed, with the rest of the Israelites, in fact in the advance-guard. It is only after the conquest that they want the allotment on the east side of the Jordan.
But did Moses, in fact, discern something about the character of those two tribes or at least about their leaders? Here, after long wandering, Israel is on the brink of achieving the very goal of liberation from slavery, the goal of putting the Teaching of G-d, the Sinai-covenant to work in all of its ramifications in the Holy Land itself, the Land of the Fathers and Mothers of Israel. At that moment every concern of the people should have been focused on the great effort of the entire people to enter. But it is at least perceived by Moses that the first thought of the flock-breeders was not the community or its sacred task but on their own particular material self-interest.
Further, this reversal, this distortion of values is borne out by what the Reubenites and Gaddites themselves say by way of explaining their request. They say that all they want to do first is “build sheepfolds for our flocks and dwelling places for our children”. In saying this, it has been noted, that they put their own particular economic interest first (that is,” sheepfolds for our flocks”) and only then dwelling places for our children.” Some translate the word children (in Hebrew, tappenu) as “dependents,” which would include also wives and elderly.
Moses, in response, pointedly replies “go back then and build dwellings for your children (putting that first) and then, “sheepfolds for your flocks: Children, family, dependents, first, only then your material gain, your profit, and sheepfolds.
Is this a message not only for our ancient forbearers, but for us as well? It certainly is. It is a classic instance of what is happening in our rich society at the present time. Ours is a society in which there is a grotesquely giant gap between the income of the richest and the poorest. Even so, in relative proportions it is the so-called “middle class” that bears the highest burden of taxes.
Even so there are those in our society, who hold considerable political power, who would rather cut Medicaid for many, many people and who would eliminate medical care for tens of millions of people in order to provide higher tax relief for the very richest people in the country and in order to give a heads up to the insurance companies which provide medical care.
Moses teaching and that of the later prophets and sages of Israel address this issue: First care for the people, for your dependents, for the needy people in society and only then, in your policies, and practices, the material interest of the very well off. This is truly the religious way, the moral way taught by Torah.
Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).