Num. 30:2 – 36:13
Rabbi Gary Pokras
As we approach the end of the book of Numbers, the entire community of Israel is encamped on the east bank of the Jordan river – directly across from the Promised Land. They have wandered for nearly forty years through the Wilderness, and they have fought and won battles along the way. They have experienced the Presence of God in the midst of their camp, they have survived and emerged stronger than ever under the leadership of Moses.
We might imagine that at this moment, the people of Israel would be more united than ever.
We would be wrong:
“And the Reubenites and the Gadites had much livestock, very numerous, and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and, look, the place was a place for livestock. And the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chieftains of the community, saying, ‘… the land that the Lord struck down before the community of Israel is livestock land, and your servants have livestock.’ And they said, ‘If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a holding. Do not make us cross the Jordan.’” (Num. 32:1-5)
Moses’ response is scathing, and understandably so. Rabbi Shai Held observes that Moses would have been angry but also worried. What would happen if these two tribes were to split off before the battle to conquer the Promised Land? Would the other tribes become demoralized and refuse to follow God? Would God become angry, yet again, about the people’s lack of faith and bring horrific punishment down upon the community? Furthermore, what must it have been like for Moses, who was forbidden from entering the land to confront a request from two tribes asking to be excused from entering the land? Could the two be farther apart?i
A negotiation ensues, during which the Reubenites and the Gadites offer not only to fight during the conquest of the Promised Land, but to serve as shock troops: “Sheep enclosures we shall build here for our livestock, and towns for our little ones. And as for us, we shall head out swiftly in the vanguard before the Israelites until we bring them to their place.” (Num. 32:16)
Moses accepts their offer, but in his response, he makes a subtle change: “Build your towns for your little ones and enclosures for your sheep, and the utterance of your mouth you shall do.” (Num. 32:24)
Moses switches the order – putting the construction of the cities for their families before the enclosures for their livestock. This small detail elevates an important and even foundational Jewish concept. In the opening verses of this story, the importance of livestock to the two tribes is emphasized over and again. They even put their livestock before their families, until Moses corrects them.
From this, the tradition teaches us to be wary of materialism as the end-all and be-all of life. While we do not glorify poverty or demonize wealth, material acquisition for its own sake is not a life-affirming value. In this story, the Reubenites and the Gadites effectively separate themselves from the rest of Israel to pursue material gain – spiritually and geographically. Later in our history, they will be the first tribes to go into exile — perhaps for this very reason.
Yet, as Rabbi Held teaches, there is another consequence of materialism: “It clouds over the reality of God and the demands of covenant.”ii When the two tribes make their request and their offer, they make no mention of God. When Moses responds, he invokes the Divine name nine times, as if to remind them not to put their own desires before the decrees of the Eternal. This, too, could be the reason the Reubenites and the Gadites will be the first tribes to go into exile.
When we are focused on our own material gain, when the acquisition of material wealth becomes our primary motivating value and goal, then we start caring less about others and our communities. And we leave less room, if any, for God in our lives.
This, then, is the warning of our story: be wary of following Reuben and Gad.