About Priorities – Parashat Matot – Masei
(Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)
By: Rabbi Maya Leibovich*
“Let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not take us across the Jordan.”(Bamidbar 32,5b). This is what two and a half tribes ask of Moses as the people of Israel are getting ready to cross over the Jordan River and conquer the promised land. Why would they ask to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan valley? They have the explanation in the first phrases of the portion Matot:
1 The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of livestock very numerous and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for livestock.
א וּמִקְנֶה | רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי גָד עָצוּם מְאֹד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ יַעְזֵר וְאֶת אֶרֶץ גִּלְעָד וְהִנֵּה הַמָּקוֹם מְקוֹם מִקְנֶה:
2 The descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben came, and they spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the kohen and to the princes of the community, saying,
ב וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי גָד וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל משֶׁה וְאֶל אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְאֶל נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר:
3 Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, and Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon,
ג עֲטָרוֹת וְדִיבֹן וְיַעְזֵר וְנִמְרָה וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֶלְעָלֵה וּשְׂבָם וּנְבוֹ וּבְעֹן:
4 the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.”
ד הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְהֹוָה לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה הִוא וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ מִקְנֶה:
If I were to ask you what is the major motif in these sentences, you would probably answer immediately: livestock. In the Hebrew “mikne” is the word opening the paragraph and ending it, so it is naturally highlighted and accentuated.
Moses, for one, hears it clearly. The request angers him.
6 [Thereupon,] Moses said to the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben, “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here?
ו וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה לִבְנֵי גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה:
It is a fair demand of these tribes to be part of the destiny of the people.
7 Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which the Lord has given them?
It is a claim against demoralization.
ז וְלָמָּה תְנִיאוּן (כתיב תנואון) אֶת לֵב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעֲבֹר אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם יְהֹוָה:
8 This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barne’a to explore the Land.
14 And behold, you have now risen in place of your fathers as a society of sinful people, to add to the wrathful anger of the Lord against Israel.
ח כֹּה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם בְּשָׁלְחִי אֹתָם מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ לִרְאוֹת אֶת הָאָרֶץ:
יד וְהִנֵּה קַמְתֶּם תַּחַת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם תַּרְבּוּת אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים לִסְפּוֹת עוֹד עַל חֲרוֹן אַף יְהֹוָה אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Moses is so angry that he makes a parallel between the two and a half tribes and the sin of the spies!
The two and a half tribes hear Moses clearly and come up with a pragmatic solution that takes into account all of Moses’ demands:
16 They approached him and said, “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children.
טז וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ:
17 We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place. Our children will reside in the fortified cities on account of the inhabitants of the land.
יז וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם הֲבִיאֹנֻם אֶל מְקוֹמָם וְיָשַׁב טַפֵּנוּ בְּעָרֵי הַמִּבְצָר מִפְּנֵי ישְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ:
18 We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.
יח לֹא נָשׁוּב אֶל בָּתֵּינוּ עַד הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ נַחֲלָתוֹ:
19 For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on the east bank of the Jordan.”
יט כִּי לֹא נִנְחַל אִתָּם מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וָהָלְאָה כִּי בָאָה נַּחֲלָתֵנוּ אֵלֵינוּ מֵעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרָחָה:
Moses welcomes the solution:
20 Moses said to them, “If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves for battle before the Lord,
כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם משֶׁה אִם תַּעֲשׂוּן אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אִם תֵּחָלְצוּ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לַמִּלְחָמָה:
21 and your armed force crosses the Jordan before the Lord until He has driven out His enemies before Him,
כא וְעָבַר לָכֶם כָּל חָלוּץ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה עַד הוֹרִישׁוֹ אֶת אֹיְבָיו מִפָּנָיו:
22 and the Land will be conquered before the Lord, afterwards you may return, and you shall be freed [of your obligation] from the Lord and from Israel, and this land will become your heritage before the Lord.
כב וְנִכְבְּשָׁה הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְאַחַר תָּשֻׁבוּ וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּם מֵיהֹוָה וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיְתָה הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה:
This is not a small sacrifice. The conquering of the land of Canaan took 14 years; 14 years in which wives and children had to survive on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley without their husbands and fathers while they went before the people to battle.
Moses continues – let us listen carefully to how he responds to their demand:
24 So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep, and what has proceeded from your mouth you shall do.”
כד בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם וְהַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיכֶם תַּעֲשׂוּ:
They put the sheepfolds before the cities; Moses reverses the order teaching them that human lives come before cattle!
The cattle is a sign of riches, of material possessions very dear to the Reubenites and Gadiates. Moses does not forget, even in such tense moments, that caring for family and mutual responsibility come before wealth.
It is an important lesson to pass on, especially in our modern Era. The value of life is not in collecting and accumulating goods, it is in giving and sharing in caring. To sum up Judaism in one basic law: Love thy neighbor (in a more literal translation of the Hebrew: love the other, love!)
* Kehilat Mevasseret Tzion (Kamatz), Mevasseret Zion, Israel
We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.