Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

It is just as important how it appears

Immediately before the Children of Israel entered into the land, Moshe was confronted by a major controversy. Two and half tribes, laden with livestock, found the land they were traversing more to their liking than the land God had promised and decided to settle there. When they approached Moshe with their request, his response was severe. He accused them of shirking their responsibility to the community and of dampening the morale of the people. In the end, an agreement was reached where these tribes would be allowed to claim the their desired land provided they participate in the conquest of the land promised by God. Moshe framed the agreement in these words: “If you will do this thing, if you will go out in the vanguard to battle before the Lord, and every member of the vanguard among you crossed the Jordan before the Lord, then you may return and you will be clear before the Lord and before Israel, and this land will be a holding for you before the Lord.” (Numbers 32:20-22)

Moshe’s intent with these words was to seal their commitment to the other tribes with an obligatory oath to both God and the people. Some rabbinic sages, however, found the phase “you will be clear before the Lord and before Israel” perplexing. If these tribes satisfied their obligation to God, why was there a need to mention its fulfillment to Israel. The seeming superfluity of the words “before Israel” in this promise led sages to discover in these words an entirely different moral obligation as framed in the following teachings from the period of the Mishnah: “The sages taught [in a baraita]: The house of Garmu were experts at making the showbread… and clean bread was never found in the hands of their children, lest people say that they were nourished with showbread, to fulfill what is said: And you shall be clear before God and before Israel; [Similarly,] the sages taught [in a baraita]: The house of Avtinus were experts in making incense… their brides never went out from the house perfumed, when they married a woman from other places they made the condition with her that she not be perfumed, lest people say that they were perfumed from the [Temple] incense, in order to fulfill that which was said: And you shall be clear before God and before Israel.” (Yoma 38a)

The family charged with making the shewbread offered in the Temple and the one responsible for making the incense used in Temple ritual were meticulous in ensuring the public that their responsibilities were carried out with the utmost integrity. The sages based this obligation on the above verse which indicated for them that it was insufficient simply to do the right thing – to do what God expected; it was equally imperative that one’s outward behavior also reflect the very same integrity.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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