Up until the moment that the children of Israel entered the land, Moshe was confronted by obstacles to the success of his mission. The latest of these happened when the tribes of Reuven and Gad decided that it was in their interest to remain on land outside of that which was promised by God. Their justification, as presented to Moshe was practical: “’…The land that the Lord struck down before the community of Israel, is livestock land, and your servants have livestock.’ And they said: ‘If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a holding. Do not make us cross the Jordan.’” (Numbers 32:4-5) Their request infuriated Moshe, who chastised them for abandoning both the God-given mission and their obligation to their brethren.
Early Jewish commentators focused on two sins, one closely related to the content of Moshe’s indictment and the other a moral failing. Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus – 1st century CE), the Jewish general and historian who predates the rabbinic sages, described their sin in these words: “… In the meantime, two tribes took counsel together, Gad and Reuven, and half of the tribe of Menashe, who were wealthy with cattle and other property, and requested from Moshe to leave them alone in the Amorite land that was conquered, since this land was good for raising cattle. But Moshe thought, lest they fear war with the Canaanites and were using their cattle as a good excuse. Moshe, [in turn], excoriated them for their wickedness in finding an excuse to cover for their cowardice…” (adapted from Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, p. 125, Shalit ed.)
Josephus hones close to Moshe’s critique of the tribes but we must also keep in mind that his opinion might reflect his background as a military leader. In either case, it describes the sin of these tribes as one of disregarding responsibility for the whole community by shirking off the burden of conquering the land.
Interesting, this later rabbinic midrash (7th century Eretz Yisrael) attributes the sin of these tribes to moral failure rather than disregard of communal responsibility:
‘And they owned cattle in great numbers’ (Numbers 32:1) Regarding this verse, Scripture says: ‘A wise man’s mind tends to the right; a fool towards the left’ (Ecclesiastes 10:2) ‘A wise man’s mind tends to the right’ – this refers to Moshe; ‘A fool’s towards the left’ – this refers to the tribe of Reuven and the tribe of Gad, for they made what is important unimportant and that which is unimportant important. How so? For they loved their possessions more than their lives. They said to Moshe: ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks’ (Numbers 32:16) Here first, and only afterwards ‘towns for our children’ (Ibid.) Moshe said to them: You will not do so, rather you will do what is important first. ‘Build cities for your children’ and afterwards “sheepfolds for your flock’. This is what is meant when we say ‘A wise man’s mind tends to the right’ refers to Moshe and ‘A fool’s towards the left’ to the tribes of Reuven and Gad. The Holy One Blessed be He said to them: You loved your money more than your lives. By your lives, there will be no blessing in it… (Tanhuma Matot 7)
The focus of these sages was not on the neglected communal responsibility of these tribes. Instead, they discerned a lack of moral clarity in their behavior. The avarice of these tribes caused them to be blind even to the welfare and survival of their own families.
To this day, we struggle with the concerns reflected in the interpretations of Josephus and those of this midrash. What are our responsibilities as Jews? Do we have a larger responsibility to ensure the physical wellbeing of Jewish people over and above our own needs? Is Judaism supposed to act as a moral barometer to help us discern our proper priorities not just as Jews but as human beings? It is easy to see that these are not just dilemmas of past generations.