By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Matot-Massei (Numbers 30.2-32.42)
“We will build sheepfolds for our flocks and settlements for our dependents.” (Numbers 32.16).
In the biblical narrative the Torah texts make it clear that Moses has what some would colloquially call “a short fuse.”
Although Moses often pleads with G-d to abate the Divine ire against the misdeeds of the Children of Israel (cf. Exodus 32.19-20), Moses himself was not inclined to withhold his own anger in word or deed. Remember that Moses, as a young man, had smitten an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. Moses, later, while witnessing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf had thrown down and smashed the Tablets of the Law. Moses had also vehemently criticized the complaints of the Israelites for their slavish yearning for the flesh pots of Egypt.
Still, commentators ancient and modern have found it necessary to provide some explanation for Moses’ agitated response (to put it mildly) to a seemingly innocent request on the part of the leaders of the tribe of Reuben and Gad (Bamidbar Rabbah ad.loc., Midrash Hagadol, Rashi ad.loc).
What is the background behind these passages? After an entire generation of wandering, the Children of Israel find themselves at last on the banks of the Jordan River about to enter the Promised Land. At this point we are reminded that the livelihood of the Rueben and Gad tribes was based on the need of their flocks and herds for substantial pasturage. While traveling toward the Promised Land, the two tribes had seen that the land east of the Jordan was fine pasturage. So it is not unusual that the Ruebenites and Gadites should request from Moses that they be allotted the pasturage east of the Jordan (rather than along with the rest of the Israelites across the Jordan in the land of Israel proper).
Now Moses explodes. He calls the Rubenites and Gadites a “brood of sinners,” the degenerate offspring of those who a generation earlier had so weakened the will of the Israelites that the people were unable to enter the land at that time. The Israelites could have entered the land back then forty years earlier but for the fact that they were frightened by the reports of those who had surveyed the land and had reported back to the rest of the Israelites that they could not do it; that the Canaanites were “like giants” and the Israelites were “like grasshoppers in comparison.”
Now, forty years later, Moses was saying that the Rubenites and Gadites were once again disheartening their fellow Israelites by refusing to engage with the rest of the Israelites in the coming conflict with the Canaanite peoples.
But it seems that Moses was mistaken! The flock-herding tribes of Ruben and Gad inform Moses that they will go into the conflict, fully armed with the rest of the Israelites; in fact, in the advance troops. It is, they explain to Moses only after the conquest that they want the allotments of pasturage outside the Land of Israel across the Jordan River.
But did Moses, after all, perceive some weakness in their argument? Did Moses perceive something about the lack of character in those two tribes? About the outlook of the leaders of those two tribes? Let us return to the text. After long wandering, Israel is on the very brink of achieving the entire goal of the Exodus from Egypt itself; that is, settling the land where they could put into effect the teaching of the Torah of G-d; in the Holy Land itself, in the land of the Fathers and Mothers of Israel.
At that moment, in Moses’ view, every concern of the entire people should have been focused on that great effort to enter the land. But Moses perceives that the first thought of the two tribes, the Ruebenites and the Gadites, was not on the rest of the community or on its sacred task but rather on the particular self-interest of those two tribes.
This is borne out by what the Ruebenites and Gadites themselves say by way of justifying their request. They say that what they want is first to “build sheepfolds for our flocks” and only then “dwelling places for our children,” or as some translate, “our dependents.” In saying this, it has been noted by many commentators that they put their particular economic interest first (“sheepfolds for our flocks”), and only then do they say “dwelling places/habitations for our dependents.” Now dependents (tappenu, in Hebrew) would include wives, children, the marginal and weak in society, strangers, widows, and orphans none of whom who can take care of themselves.
Moses, in response, pointedly replies: “Go back then and build dwellings for your dependents (putting them first) and only then, “sheepfolds for your flocks,” the source of your own gain and personal profit.
In our time, for us, does not this message bear some chastising instruction? Not only for our ancient forbearers but for ourselves as well? This distinction first made by Moses applies as much to our own societal condition as it did in those ancient days.
In our society, at the present, there is a grotesquely giant gap, a great income inequality between the richest and the poorest, an income inequality as one astute observer (Peter Drucker) of our society has put it, greater than the difference between the income of Louis XIV of France and the lowest peasant in his empire.
That is to say the difference of income between the heads of corporations and their leading stockholders today, on the one hand, and the lowest paid employees of those same corporations on the other hand and those who mops the floors and clean the headquarters at night, is greater than the difference between the income of the Emperor of France in the 18th century and the lowest peasants in his holdings.
Today, it is a powerful group in the Senate of the United States, those who represent the richest in society, who would rather withhold food stamps from poor children who are not sure where their next meal is coming from, a group which would rather block any raise in the minimum wage (difficult to live on today) for a couple working full time, than raise the income tax for the very richest members of our society by even a few percentage points or change a tax code by which the so-called middle class pays a higher percentage of their income in their taxes than the richest 1% or 2% of our society.
Moses’ teaching and that of the later prophets and sages of Israel forcibly addressed this kind of situation in our Torah portion: first take care of your dependents, the needy, the poor, and then, only your own policies, attitudes and practices, in your own behalf, your own upper-class self-interest.
Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is Senior Scholar/Rabbi Emeritus of North Shore Congregation Israel.