Parshas Matos – Closing the gap in the family

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

This week’s divrei Torah are all about closing the gaps in the Jewish nation. Its appropriate of course that this be the theme since we are at the culmination of the 3 weeks now. May we all have the power to bridge the gaps that we have in our lives.

This week we have the story of the tribes Gad and Reuven asking that they inherit the land outside of ארץ ישראל as their plot in the Jewish people since the land was very fertile and it would be great for all the cattle to graze there. They come to Moshe with this request and Moshe lets loose at them. He compares them to the spies and tells them how dare you do something which will dissuade the nation from advancing into the land, you are dooming us to another few decades of wandering in the desert until we all die. They explain to Moshe that they are not trying to discourage at all, and in fact they will volunteer to be the front-line troops in the conquest of ארץ ישראל and that they will even stay until each tribe is settled in its place of inheritance. Moshe agrees on condition that they keep this promise, and tells Elazar and Yehoshua to make sure that they in fact keep their word, and with that the deal is closed.

I think overall the sense we are given is that these 2 tribes weren’t right for doing what they did and even though they came and fought. After all, they chose not to live in the land that Hashem promised us, which can’t be a good thing. But I think a deeper look will open our eyes to entire new layers of subplots and how these two tribes were in fact pioneering in a glorious way. Let’s jump in.

There is another story in the Torah where a family was split due to one party wanting good grazing pastures for his cattle. Way back in פרשת לך לך the shepherds of Avraham and Lot get into a fight over lack of sufficient food for their cattle and Lot splits from Avraham to settle where he sees good pasturing opportunities. There are a few language/thematic parallels, both בני גד ובני ראובן and Lot have a lot of cattle described as מקנה רב, both wanted to separate from the “main” branch of their families, both have discussions/stories of war which happen right next to the stories in the text, Lot gets captured in the war of the 4 kings vs the 5 kings, and these 2 tribes promise to go fight the war with their brethren. Now you’re probably thinking that I am making the case against them worse! I am comparing them to Lot about whom the פסוק says ויסע לוט מקדם, that he travelled away from the east, and Rashi says that the word קדם means not only directionally but psychologically and emotionally as well, he travelled away from the קדמונו של עולם, from He who preceded the world.

But I think that the direction in the two stories in the first difference which sets Lot and בני גד ובני ראובן up to go in two totally opposite ways. Rashi, noting this seemingly unimportant aspect in both stories makes a point of explaining exactly which direction they went, see Rashi in בראשית פרק י”ג פסוק י”א he makes it very clear that Lot was traveling from east to west, and Rashi in במדבר פרק ל”ב פסוק י”ט that they were very clear that they didn’t want to travel west with the rest of the nation they wanted to stay to the east. This sets the two up as opposites. Lot travelled away from the east and בני גד ובני ראובן stayed in the east.

When you think east, you think of the sun rising, and there is something unique about the sun rising. Our day starts at עלות השחר, when the sun’s rays are first visible. To the naked eye it looks like the pitch-black dead of night, and if you say to someone “ahh, the beautiful day is starting” they would think you were crazy. But that is the power of our nation, to be able to look at the pitch black and see the beginning of a new day. That is the power of looking east, and that is the direction that Avraham was camped in after he split from Lot, since that was Avraham’s modus operandi, to look at bleakness and see potential. The Jews can stretch the day to begin at a time that looks like night, and these 2 tribes were able to stretch the borders of ארץ ישראל to include something that looks like it is outside of ארץ ישראל (it’s interesting that this story is always read at a time of בין המצרים, when we are presented with the opportunity to be stuck in borders and given the possibility to stretch them out).

There are other differences as well. Lot wanted the land solely for himself and his cattle and he moved away from Hashem for that, but is you look at the language of בני גד ובני ראובן it seems the opposite. They say הארץ אשר הכה יה-וה לפני בני ישראל ארץ מקנה היא ולעבדיך מקנה, the land that Hashem struck down before the Jewish people is a land good for cattle, and your servants have cattle. They attribute the conquest of the land to Hashem and the fact that they have cattle is stuck in at the end of the פסוק, almost like a post script. They also include themselves with the rest of the people and agree to fight in the front lines to help them. They were saying that this conquest of land that Hashem has promised us, it’s already begun, Hashem gave these lands of סיחון and עוג to us now, and we want to fulfill the promise of land by settling here.

Define ארץ ישראל. It is the land of the Jews, which can be defined as land that Jews live in. So was this area to the east of the Jordan river part of ארץ ישראל, not strictly in terms of the borders set forth by Hashem, but in some ways it was, the same way that עלות השחר isn’t 100% the beginning of the day but in some ways it is. This land across the Jordan did have some of the things that ארץ ישראל has, like the ערי מקלט for example.

And this request should have been of interest to Moshe. In last week’s פרשה Moshe gets reminded that he won’t be going into the land, a tragic loss. But, we hear at the end of the Torah that Moshe was buried on הר נבוא, and at the end of this week’s פרשה we hear that בני ראובן built up the city of נבוא, so if what they were really doing was stretching the borders of the land to encompass the east side of the Jordan, then was Moshe buried inside or outside? Not so clear, but he definitely isn’t in middle of nowhere. In some ways he is inside the land that Jews live in, which can be defined as ארץ ישראל.

One of the other places בני גד ובני ראובן built was בית הרן, and הרן just happens to be Avraham’s brothers name, and who were those included in בית הרן? His son Lot, and his daughter יסכה, also known as שרה אשת אברהם. Hundreds of years earlier Avraham had been interested in saving “בית הרן” and building it back up, he married הרן’s daughter and adopted his son as his own. And now these two tribes were keeping the legacy of Avraham alive in some way. Avraham was obsessed with family and made sure to not let Haran’s name get lost. And the בני גד ובני ראובן were obsessed with property, with land. But not in an unhealthy way like Lot had been. There is a positive obsession with land, which is why land and family always go together in the promises we receive from Hashem. And it makes sense intuitively as well, since to have a successful family you need a place to raise them. So just as Avraham extended his family as much as he could, these two tribes were extending land and borders as much as they could, and in some way undoing that move away from Avraham that Lot took so many years earlier. They took back the land that had once been that of עמון and מואב, the descendants of Lot, and took them back into the family.

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