Its Déjà Vu All Over Again — Rav Michael Susman
As Yogi Berra, the contemporary master of malapropisms, famously noted “its déjà vu all over again” (with apologies to all non-Americans and non-baseball fans). From a reading of the first half of the last perek (32) in this week’s parsha, it certainly appears that Moshe Rabbenu felt the same way. The Torah tells us that Moshe is approached by representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuven who request to stay on the eastern bank of the Jordan River and to take as their portion of the Land of Israel the lush grazing lands recently captured from the Emori. Moshe Rabbenu’s response, which clearly caught the emissaries of the two tribes off guard, is harsh and uncompromising. Comparing them to the spies of the previous generation, Moshe accuses them of undermining the morale of the nation at a crucial juncture of the planned conquest of Eretz Yisrael. There can be no doubt that the Dor HaMidbar, the generation raised in the desert while waiting for the previous generation to die out, was well aware of all the details of Chet HaMeraglim. As such, could there be a more damning accusation from Moshe Rabbenu? But was his reaction justified?
It is worth comparing the events described in the latter half of Sefer BaMidbar with the events leading up to Chet HaMeraglim. Prior to Chet HaMeraglim Bnei Yisrael had been forced to overcome idol worship in the form of Chet HaEgel, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu which left them stunned and sobered, a myriad of hardships forced upon them by the nature of life in the wilderness and an unwanted battle with Amalek. Nonetheless, they also experienced Kriyat Yam Suf, Matan Torah, Be’er Miriam, man (מן) and the building of the Mishkan, Then, when a mere few days separate them from wilderness to their homeland, the disastrous result of the spies’ mission left them in the midbar for another thirty eight years.
Contrast this with the second half of Parshat Chukat. Once again we find Bnei Yisrael, despite pitfalls and setbacks, marching ever more confidently toward Eretz Yisrael. This confidence can only have been boosted by their ability to overcome tragedy in the form of the death of Miriam and Aharon, internal demons in the guise of the lure of immorality and idol worship at Baal Peor and actual combat with Sichon and Og and their armies. Now, once again on the verge of entering the land, a group of prominent leaders express an unwillingness to cross into Eretz Yisrael. Could history be repeating itself?
In order to answer this question we must understand what the tribes of Gad and Reuven were in fact suggesting. Was it their intent to abandon their brothers to fight for Eretz Yisrael while they enjoyed a quiet and prosperous life on the eastern bank of the Jordan? If that was the case then Moshe’s harsh rebuke was more than justified. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps all Reuven and Gad wanted was to settle this most appealing grazing land but fully anticipated that they would be part of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. In that case it would appear that Moshe’s rebuke was misplaced.
This question is in fact a point of dispute between the meforshim. Ralbag and the Akeidat Yitzhak, R. Yitzhak Arameh, clearly posit that Reuven and Gad had no intention of crossing into Eretz Yisrael with the rest of the Shevatim. On the other hand, Ramban and Abarbanel suggest that Moshe had misunderstood the motivation of Reuven and Gad. They were merely interested in the material benefits of staying on the eastern side of the Jordan. It was not their intention to abandon their brothers in the time of battle, and they fully expected to join them in the conquest of the land. Not only that, but from the point of view of these tribes, their request to remain on the eastern bank was actually a boon to their brethren who would now benefit from larger inheritances in “western” Eretz Yisrael, since that land would now only be divided ten ways and not twelve. If this interpretation is correct then we can only begin to imagine the shock and pain that Moshe’s unsubstantiated accusations caused Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven.
In his analysis of this question, Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim b’Parshot HaShavua, first series) points out that the stakes here are much higher than one would find in an “ordinary” disagreement amongst commentators. The position that one accepts here will in fact determine the entire purpose of the Torah sharing this story with us. According to Ralbag and the Baal Akeida, we see Moshe Rabbenu, in the twilight of his leadership, ferociously protecting Am Yisrael from the fate that had befallen their fathers. Moshe has learned the lesson of Chet HaMeraglim well, and will not allow Reuven and Gad to create a wedge which would prevent Am Yisrael from entering Eretz Yisrael, perhaps permanently.
On the other hand, if we accept the approach of Ramban and Abarbanel, a very different picture of Moshe Rabbenu emerges. Rather than an individual who unerringly reads the map and responds to an emerging crisis by confronting its backers and turning them toward a more responsible path, we find an aging leader who is mired in the past, condemned to be fighting the previous generation’s wars rather than guiding a new generation onward. Our story then becomes another indication of the necessity to have new leadership, in the form of Yehoshua, guide Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael. From this perspective, Ralbag and Akedat Yitzhak’s hero is at fault, while Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, taken to task by Gersonides and R. Arameh are in fact faultless.
[Rav Samet goes on to defend Moshe Rabbenu, demonstrating that Ralbag and the Baal Akeida’s position is more in consonance with the text. See page 266-277 of his Iyun.]
But even if we were to accept the position of Abarbanel and Ramban can we really view Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven as being faultless?
In a scathing critique of the behavior of these two tribes, Nechama Leibovitz (Iyunim B’Sefer BaMidbar, pages 355-359) attacks the mindset which led Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven to make their request in the first place. Nechama sees these two tribes as motivated by a love of material wealth above all other values. This is evident from the very first passuk in perek 32 which describes the circumstances which led Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven to stake a claim on the east bank. “U’mikneh rav haya l’Bnei Reuven v’l’Bnei Gad…vhinay hamakom makom mikneh” – “And vast amounts of cattle belonged to the children of Reuven and Gad…and here the place was a (good) place for cattle”. I tried to keep the translation as accurate as possible despite the stilted prose, because this is a key point. The passuk begins and ends with cattle, because Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad’s world began and ended with cattle. In passuk 16, even after they agree to lead the armies of Bnei Yisrael into battle, they first declare that will build pens for their sheep and only then build cities for their families. As Rashi points out, their property was more valuable to them than their families. And with this type of value structure, can we even wonder at the fact that they were willing to forfeit the honor to live in Eretz Yisrael when the opportunity of a better business environment outside of Eretz Yisrael presented itself?
By comparing Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven’s offer to lead Am Yisrael into battle (32:16-19) with Moshe Rabbenu’s acceptance of the offer (32:20-24), Nechama demonstrates just how deep the chasm between the values of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, and those espoused by Moshe Rabbenu, really are. In the four passukim describing Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven’s offer Hashem’s name does not appear even once. Instead, Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven reference Bnei Yisrael as the partners in their agreement. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven view this as a deal with the other shevatim; we’ll make sure that you get your portion (in Eretz Yisrael) and we will return to ours (in the east). And of course, as we already pointed out in the name of Rashi. their possessions come first. When reviewing the offer, Moshe stresses that the bargain is being made with Hashem (God’s name appear no less than five times in these five passukim), and he tells them (24) to build cities for their children first.
Interestingly, as opposed to his original harsh rebuke here Moshe doesn’t explicitly call out Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven on their misplaced values. Rather, by changing the emphasis in their offer from man to God and from possessions to family, Moshe gently steers them back to a more wholesome set of values. Far from being the leader out of touch with his people, Moshe shows himself to be the master educator, knowing when to lash out and when to cajole.
Did Moshe’s approach work? Temporarily at least, as Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven’s response indicates (32:25-27) when they accept Moshe’s terms (k’asher adoni mzave, k’asher adoni omer) and when they acknowledge that they are bound to God (l’fnei Hashem) and not to man.
At the very least, even if we accept Ramban and Abarbanel, Moshe has given Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven an important “values check”. And according to Ralbag and the Baal Akeida, he has averted a potential catastrophe. In either scenario, Moshe is once again revealed as an unmatched educator and leader.
Rav Michael Susman