Matot for Tweens

Matot, Numbers 30:2−32:42

"The period of wanderings may be seen as a trial of faith, and … there emerges the vision of a new nation that will take possession of the Holy Land-and do so as a holy people" (Plaut, Revised Edition, 887).

After 38 years of wandering, the Israelites are on the east bank of the Jordan River. Moses gives instructions to the heads of each tribe regarding the vows of women. God tells Moses that he will die after the Israelites take revenge on the Midianites. Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh gain permission to settle on the east side of the Jordan. Moses instructs Joshua and Eleazar to affirm the covenant once the conquest is completed.

Moses said to them, "If every shock-fighter among the Gadites and the Reubenites crosses the Jordan with you to do battle, at the instance of the Lord, and the land is subdued before you, you shall give them the land of Gilead as a holding" (32:29).

Moses was the greatest prophet, and prophecy reveals foresight and insight. The quality of foresight continues to distinguish great leaders. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben ask to settle on the east side of the Jordan, they argue on the basis that the land is fit for the cattle that they have (Numbers 32:4-5). Sages and scholars have debated whether Gad and Reuben hoped to avoid having to participate in the protracted battles it would take to conquer the land of Canaan. They may have been acting out of an impulse for self-preservation, but Moses the prophet has the ability to foresee consequences to their actions.

Had Moses agreed to allow these tribes to settle in the land that had already been conquered without continuing the fight alongside their brethren, one by one the tribes might have removed themselves from the common cause of conquering the entire Promised Land. This decision had strategic importance in other ways, as well. In the book of Joshua, once the people finally enter the Promised Land, Joshua sets up a permanent camp on the west side of the Jordan River, near Jericho. That camp houses the women, children, Levites and those without the will to do battle when the other men go off to war. In Transjordan are the enemies that Israel had already defeated or avoided on their journey to the Promised Land. The more military success Israel experiences in Canaan, the more threatening it becomes to the region, making it more of a target. By granting the request made by Gad and Reuben, Moshe ensures that there will be not only an immediate cover for the supply lines, but also a permanent buffer zone, enabling Israel to conquer and inhabit the Promised Land. In this way, Moses' decision shows the foresight of a strategic military planner.

Most of us have experienced the urge to make a decision to do something on impulse. The "impulse buy" is the result of putting aside all thoughts of consequences and giving in to our desire to have an item for ourselves. A parent shopping with children often has to play the role of taking a step back and saying, "No." However, sometimes the parent might see an advantage to the purchase beyond that which the child sees at the time. This parent may acquiesce, although perhaps not for the reasons the child perceives. A parent might also use the opportunity to strike a bargain with the petitioning child, saying something like, "If I buy that toy, you have to share it with your brother." In this way, Moses plays the role of the diplomatic parent, bargaining for a behavior that will benefit the entire family.

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer describes an even deeper benefit to Moses' decision, "Only a viable Israelite presence outside the Land could secure the Israelite presence in the Land. In other words, a viable Israel depends, in part on an equally viable diaspora" (Common Ground,298-299). God would eventually keep the promise to exile the people from the land, and Israel would need to survive outside of it. Having a presence in the Diaspora began the development of a Judaic religion not tied to the sacrificial cult. Joshua established the nearest altar on the west side of the Jordan, but God makes it clear that this is just for symbolic purposes. The people's service to God would have to take some form other than sacrifices. In this case, Moses shows the unique foresight of a leader who is able to understand that plans and provisions must be made on the chance that the assumptions on which he is basing his decisions could be wrong. As he makes arrangements for the people to enter the Promised Land, he responds affirmatively to a request that seems to threaten the future of the Jewish people in the land. His openness to this idea actually secures the future of the people in a way that he may not have been able to predict. Moses' crucial decision as a leader is one which allows the people to secure the land as well as to continually adapt in the future. Periodically, it is a sign of health when a community leader questions operating assumptions and plans for the contingency, "What if I am wrong?'

The proliferation of Jewish organizations along the political continuum from liberal to conservative, the variety of lifelong educational options, and the range of attitudes toward the State of Israel are signs that even without a Moses, we have internalized the message that we must always consider alternatives, that diversity is a strength, and that consensus can be a weakness. One of the rabbinic responses to the question, "Who is wise?" is one who (fore)sees consequences. The aphorism is as timeless as it is timely.

Table Talk

  1. The decision for two-and-a-half tribes to live on the east side of the Jordan River, outside the Land of Israel, needed the input and agreement of the tribal leaders, Moses and God. Do you make better decisions by yourself or with help from other people?
  2. If you are acting as a leader of a team and one of the team members comes to you with a new or challenging idea, how do you react? What factors go into your decision making as to whether or not to go with the team member's idea?
  3. The reason it was acceptable for the tribes to live on the land they wanted was that it was good for them (their cattle and their children) and good for the rest of the Israelites (they would help fight in the army). How do you balance making decisions that are good for you personally and also good for others to whom you have a responsibility, like other people in your family, or other Jews or the environment? When a conflict arises between your own needs and those of someone else in your family, how do you resolve it?

For Further Learning

Our Reform movement continues to uphold a commitment to both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. The Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism accepted by the CCAR in 1999 reads, in part, "We affirm that both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry should remain vibrant and interdependent communities. As we urge Jews who reside outside Israel to learn Hebrew as a living language and to make periodic visits to Israel in order to study and to deepen their relationship to the Land and its people, so do we affirm that Israeli Jews have much to learn from the religious life of Diaspora Jewish communities." This requires action to strengthen Jewish life wherever Jews live, and calls on Jews specifically to improve their Hebrew skills. Do you agree that a working knowledge of Hebrew helps strengthen ties to Israel in particular and the Jewish people in general?

Reference Materials

Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012

Originally published: