Parashah of the week: Mattot-Massei

“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised” Numbers 32:24


Reuben and Gad, who possessed the largest flock among the Tribes of Israel, approached Moses with a request to settle in the lands on the eastern side of the River Jordan.

Initially Moses objected to this request, accusing Reuben and Gad of betraying their fellow Israelites during their time of need as they were soon to conquer the Promised Land.

He warned them that they were following the path of the spies who didn’t want to enter the Land of Israel and that such a request would lead to other tribes making the same request.

Reuben and Gad then clarified their request by saying they would first build pens for their livestock and then cities for their children, after which all their men would help the rest of the people to conquer the Land of Israel before returning to their land east of the River Jordan.

Moses agreed to this arrangement with one slight change. He instructs the leaders of Reuben and Gad to first build cities for their children and then pens for their flock.

Rashi comments on this discrepancy and criticises Reuben and Gad since they placed greater emphasis on providing for their sheep, their material possessions, rather than their children. He notes that when Moses switched the order, he was rebuking their leaders, teaching them the importance of making what is essential their primary concern and what is not essential, secondary.

Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Salant (1785-1866) asked how it could be possible for that generation which had experienced divine providence daily in the desert to make such a mistake.

The answer is that owing to their large flock they felt it would be better for the entire Jewish nation if they would settle on the eastern side of the Jordan since they would avoid disagreements with the others tribes over land.

Their motivation was for the sake of heaven but even though their intention was pure, they still made a grave error by getting their priorities confused. We see from this episode that we should always make of primary importance what is essential, even if at times we might be able to rationalise otherwise.

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