For the final parashah of the Book of Numbers, imagine we are with our ancestors on the east side of the Jordan River. This week is a double portion of Matot/Mas’ei. The episode we will explore begins in Numbers 32 in Matot.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad owned a lot of cattle. They saw the regions of Jazer and Gilad, outside of the Promised Land, were good for cattle. Representatives from Reuben and Gad went to Moses, Eleazer the priest, and the chieftains of the community to ask permission to settle outside of the Promised Land.
Picture the most prominent chieftain from Gad stepping forward with his own tribal brothers and those of Reuben just behind him. He says, “This whole area east of the Jordan, which God conquered for the Israelite community, is quite suitable for cattle.” Moses says nothing. The Gadite hints, “You may have noticed, we have cattle.” Moses says nothing. With some hesitation the Gadite continues, “It would be a favor to us if this land were given to us.” Without a response from Moses, he makes himself clear, “Do not move us across the Jordan” (see Numbers 32:4-5).
Moses finally responds with what my mind hears as a sharp inquiry in a condescending tone, “Do you mean your brothers should go to war while you stay here? Why would you want to discourage others from going into the Land that God is giving them? This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to survey the land. After going up to the wadi Eshcol and surveying the land, they turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that the Eternal had given them” (see Numbers 32:6-9).
I hear Moses’ voice as angry, recounting God’s anger at Kadesh-Barnea and accusing the Gadites and Reubenites of being another iteration of sinful men. Moses sees their interest in staying on the east side of the Jordan as turning their backs on God and inviting disaster upon the entire community (see Numbers 32:15).
Then something compelling happens in the way the text is physically written in the Torah scroll. Between verses 15 and 16 there is a space. Torah does not have any punctuation marks, but it does have regimented places where a line ends or where there is a noted gap between words. The gap does not necessarily have deeper meaning. But in the spirit of midrash, we can ask ourselves if we jump into the gap, what might we hear?
After the Gadites request to stay on the east side of the Jordan and Moses’ angry response, was there a silence when Moses stopped talking? Is the silence represented by this gap in the written text? What might the Gadites, Reubenites, and other onlookers be thinking in the silence that follows Moses’ rebuke? Imagine yourself as a parent, soldier, cattle owner, or unwed woman watching this exchange. How might you feel about staying on the east side of the Jordan? Do you agree settling outside the Land would encourage other tribes to give up on their plan to enter? Does it matter to you? Are you moved by Moses’ response?
Nehama Leibowitz notes that Jewish thinkers have looked at the request of the Gadites and Reubenites to settle outside the Land as a “dilemma between the choice of a career — personal advancement — or the fulfillment of a mission.”1 In other words, were those who wanted to settle outside the Land more concerned about their material gain than fulfilling their relationship with God? When verse 16 continues the story some commentators maintain they embodied greed and were therefore “the first of all the tribes to go into exile.”2 However, Nachmanides is among those who see their commitment to God and their brethren when they commit to being on the frontlines of the battles to come.3
Perhaps having a silent space before responding to Moses gave those petitioning time to collect their thoughts. They did not lash back or become defensive. They laid out a plan to raise cattle and their families east of the Jordan, while sending shock troops to participate in the sacred mission of the larger community.
There are three significant pieces of learning in reading this episode for today.
First, who among us can presume to know the motivation for the direction others take? Ultimately, how we prioritize ourselves, regard God, and treat those around us are the important factors for determining a path.
Second, many of us begin on one route and find along the way we want to change destinations. The Gadites and Reubenites whose plans changed did not abandon the larger community. They struck a balance between what they perceived as best for them, what God asked, and their obligation to the larger community. Similarly, when we make a decision to part ways or change our direction, we do best to seek a balance between these components: what do I think is right for me, what does God expect of me, and how do I act responsibly for the larger community?
Third, mind the gap, not as we would when stepping quickly from a train to the platform and continuing on without stopping. Rather, when we decide to change our plans and a fellow traveler becomes upset, let there be quiet space before proceeding. It seems that the Gadites and Reubenites heard Moses’ concerns about their request and tempered their petition accordingly. It is easy to become defensive, dig in our heals, and respond to anger with anger. The gap gives the Gadites and Reubenites a moment to listen and humbly integrate Moses’ objections into their plan to reach their new goal.
Ultimately we see that for the Gadites and Reubenites to live east of the Jordan River and in peace with the other tribes would require balancing their vision with God’s requests and the needs of the community. So may it be for us: when we decide to turn in a new direction, may we consider not only our own wishes, but also the sanctity of our covenant with God, and our special commitments to those with whom we journey.
1. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Mattot #2: “Mammon or Eretz Israel,” p. 379
2. See the unspecified midrash cited in Leibowitz, p. 385
3. For instance, Nachmanides to Numbers 32:32, “God forbid that your servants should violate what our master Moses commands us! For they are the words of the Lord, and we will not violate His commandment.” Michael Carasik, The Commentators’ Bible: the JPS Miqraot Gedolot, Numbers (JPS 2011), p. 235
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.