In reading Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Mattot 2, “Mammon or Eretz Israel”, one must take note of the difference in approach presented within this article and the one seemingly presented in the Chumash text itself. The focus within this article is the rejection, by these two and half tribes, of land in Eretz Yisrael proper. They are motivated by wealth and, as such, they place the needs of their cattle – i.e., as the author defines it, their concern for their material possessions – over the value of living in the land proper. This is thus understood to be the focus of Moshe Rabbeinu’s critique of their request and position. The text itself, though, seems to define Moshe’s critique in a different manner. Moshe originally saw the tribes of Reuven and Gad1 as attempting to avoid participation in the battle to conquer Israel, thereby not only avoiding their responsibility to the rest of the nation to participate in the war but also again potentially raising doubts as to God’s promise and ability to fulfill His promise.2 The actual request itself does not seem to be the problem and, once these tribes agree to be in the forefront of the actual battle to conquer Eretz Yisrael proper, Moshe agrees to their request. We are thus left with the question: how does Nechama Leibowitz reconcile her understanding with the text?
Of course, as evidenced within this article itself, there are many sources that do point to an interest, by these tribes, in their material possessions. As further indicated by the words of Rashi, Bamidbar 32:16, it also seems that there was a significant problem with the value they gave to their concern for property. Moshe Rabbeinu also does correct them, albeit subtly, for the importance that they give their cattle. The tribes were also eventually punished for this concern for their cattle as they were, as described in Divrei Hayamim I 5:26, the first to experience exile at the hands of the Assyrians.3 Yet, it still remains that the text does not seem to indicate that this concern for property was Moshe’s concern. It indeed may have been a problem but it does not seem to be the specific problem that concerned Moshe, leading him to chastise them and compare them to the spies. In a certain way, these two-and-a-half tribes actually performed a service to the nation. The land of Sichon and Og now belonged to the nation; who was to receive it? The tribes of Reuven and Gad, with their suggestion, answered that problem and also, thereby, increased the land that would be divided amongst the other tribes in the land proper, especially considering that land was given on the other side of the Jordan to part of Menashe.4
There actually is a further difficulty with the contention that there was a problem with the very request of Reuven and Gad for land on the other side of the Jordan. Isn’t this land, in any event, still part of Eretz Yisrael?5 A concern that these tribes were asking for the land on the other side of the Jordan – land already conquered – because they did not want to fight the war to conquer the rest of the land can, clearly, be understood. A concern that they did not value the land of Israel itself, though, has problems for they will still be in the land, albeit the newly defined depiction of the land that extends beyond the Jordan. Are we to say that there was a problem with not desiring a segment of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan? Arguments could perhaps be made to support such a contention but still, essentially, the tribes of Reuven and Gad were not forsaking Israel but rather simply requesting a specific area in Israel. What is the problem with that? Perhaps they were wrong in giving such extended value to their property of cattle but the request itself does not really seem to be a problem. So why, again, does Nechama Leibowitz focus on the motivation of money rather than, what seems to be the concern in the text, possible fear?
On the surface, the story could be reduced to the following skeleton. The tribes of Reuven and Gad request specific land. Moshe Rabbeinu misunderstands the motivation behind their petition and criticizes them. The tribes respond admirably to Moshe’s charge indicating that his perceived understanding of their motivation was incorrect. The result is that their request is met. But what about the original request, more specifically, the actual motivation behind this request? On the surface, it would seem, from the text, not to be a problem. Bamidbar 32:1 begins with the statement that the tribes of Reuven and Gad had much cattle, almost with an implication that a request to have land that favours this cattle is understandable. It is only Moshe’s misunderstanding of their motivation that seems to have created the confrontation; the subsequent solution works for it shows Moshe that he was wrong. This is where Nechama Leibowiz’s point has great significance. What she effectively shows is that there was still a problem with the original motivation; furthermore, Moshe knew this as well. If so, why is this not portrayed in the text? Why is the request met? The answer lies in the distinction in these problematic motivations and how we are to respond.
The motivation to take care of one’s cattle is not inherently problematic. This is the very purpose of land – to support the nation’s economy. A desire for Eretz Yisrael should include a desire to benefit from the land for the only true way to extol a land’s greatness is by experiencing how wonderful the land is for meeting a land’s purpose to the nation. It is based upon this principle that we can only understand the praises of the land the Hashem Himself presents. Yet we still must understand the parameters that we must place around such a concern; we must give it the proper priority. The problem with Reuven and Gad was that they did not do this; giving greater importance to their cattle then other values which do have greater priority such as protecting their children. Such a weakness, though, is to be met with education and not an attack upon the whole motivation. The motivation has value; it just needs direction. This is what Moshe did. Moshe’s perceived concern that they were motivated to avoid the war, though, could not be met in this manner. This is a motivation that cannot be tolerated and this indeed reflected Moshe’s actions. The point of Nechama Leibowitz is not to ignore the other lesson.
1 The part of the tribe of Menashe that was eventually included in this distribution of land on this side of the Jordanwas not part of the original request. For an explanation of how they eventually became part of this distribution, see Ramban, Bamidbar 32:33.
2 Moshe compares them to the spies who admitted that the land was bountiful yet expressed fear in confronting the inhabitants of the land in battle. See Bamidbar 13:28. .
3 See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bamidbar 32:16.
4 See Ramban, Bamidbar 32:16, 3316.
5 See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:2 with Radbaz. See, also, T.B. Arachin 32b with specific reference to Reuven and Gad.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, an international Torah research, resource and educational endearvor devoted to the fostering of individual inquiry, the presentation of the halachic spectrum and the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org.