Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Pens”: Parashat Mattot-Masa’ei 5781

The Jewish People stand on the doorstep of the Land of Israel, ready to conclude forty long years of wandering in the desert. And then the Tribes of Gad and Reuven come and throw a wrench in the works. They inform Moshe that the land in the Transjordan recently conquered from the Amorites contains fertile plains that would be just perfect for their large flocks. All in all, it would make would make a lovely place to call home. Accordingly, they request to waive their inheritance in the Land of Israel, and, instead, to settle right here.

Moshe is angered by their request, all but certain that they will alarm the rest of the nation and foment a new round of “Let’s return to Egypt” rioting that had not been seen for nearly forty years. The representatives of Gad and Reuven attempt to reassure Moshe that they will fight alongside the rest of the nation until they successfully wrest the Land of Israel from the Canaanites and only then will they settle the Transjordan. They tell Moshe [Bemidbar 32:16-18] “We will build here pens for our flocks and towns for our children. We will lead as shock-troops in front of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.”

Their plan sounds reasonable enough. Nevertheless, Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, suggests that Moshe is less then convinced. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma, writes, “[By saying they will build ‘pens for their flocks’ and only then ‘towns for their children’] they paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters. Moshe said to them, ‘Not so! Make the chief thing the chief thing and what is subordinate, subordinate. First build cities for your little ones and [only] afterwards enclosures for your flocks’”. Rashi is subtly referring to Moshe’s response to Gad and Reuven [Bemidbar 32:24]: “Build towns for your children and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised”. Moshe had chastised Gad and Reuven for placing their cattle before their children. By scolding them, he returned their children to top priority status. Rav Asher Wasserteil, who lived in Israel in the previous century, teaches that Gad and Reuven accepted Moshe’s admonition. In the Torah’s discussion of the new towns that Gad and Reuven established in the Transjordan, it tells us that they built [Bemidbar 22:36] “fortified towns and enclosures for flocks”. First they built towns for their children and only then did they build pens for their flocks, precisely as Moshe had directed.

It is extremely difficult to understand what Gad and Reuven were thinking. Were their finances really more important in their eyes than their own children? Were they blindly driven by capitalism? I suggest that there is much going on under the surface. An indication of this is found in the response of Gad and Reuven [Bemidbar 32:16] “They approached [Moshe] and said, ‘We will build here pens for our flocks…’” What does the Torah mean when it tells us that they “approached” Moshe? Were they standing far away? Were they speaking through a medium? The Torah uses an identical idiom when Joseph frames his brother, Benjamin, slipping his silver goblet into Benjamin’s grain sack. Judah, who has promised his father, Jacob, that he will return Benjamin safely to Israel, goes to bat for Benjamin and pleads his case before Joseph. The Torah begins Judah’s plea with the words [Bereishit 44:18] “Judah approached [Joseph] and said…” Rashi teaches that we learn from here that Judah spoke in harsh terms. Apparently, the dispute between Gad, Reuven, and Moshe was equally harsh.

Another indication that there is more here than meets the eye is in Gad and Reuven’s use of the word “pens” – “gederot”. Animals are not typically kept in pens. When Jacob returns to Canaan after twenty years of exile, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 33:17] “Jacob journeyed on to Succot, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle”. While sheep are typically taken out to graze in a field or in a pen, they are kept in a roofed enclosure such as a barn. Why did Gad and Reuven want to build specifically pens?

Yet a third indication lies in Moshe’s instructions to Gad and Reuven. He tells them [Bemidbar 32:20-23] “If you do this, if you go to battle as shock-troops… this land shall be your holding… But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against G-d”. Sounds simple enough: If “a” then “b”. If “not a” then “not b”. And then, for some reason Moshe adds a requirement: “Build towns for your children and pens for your flocks, but perform what you have promised (literally: what comes from your mouths)”. This point seems completely irrelevant to the discussion and yet Moshe saves it for his final instruction.

When the Tribes of Gad and Reuven request to settle the Transjordan and not the Land of Israel, they are doing more than just spurning the Promised Land. The Jewish People had been down that path before and it was not pretty. It had nearly resulted in their destruction. Moshe had to ensure that this did not happen again. However, this time, Gad and Reuven were adding something new: they were suggesting that Judaism could not only survive outside the borders of Israel but that it could flourish. Their fathers did not want to live in Israel because they were frightened. The sons did not want to live there because there were better places to live. This concept was something that Moshe could tolerate. To him, entering the Land of Israel was the most dear thing in the universe. He prayed for it incessantly and yet, because of his sins, it was denied to him. According to our Sages in the Midrash, Moshe understood that only in Israel could he keep all of the laws of the Torah. Rabbi Judah HaLevi, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, writes in his monumental “Kuzari” that Torah Law (halacha) was created to be kept in Israel. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, a contemporary of Rabbi Judah HaLevi, suggests that we keep the laws of the Torah while we are exiled from the Land of Israel only so that we should not forget them when we return to the land, speedily in our days.

Nevertheless, the innate suitability of the Torah to the Land of Israel was not the point of contention. I suggest that Moshe, Gad, and Reuven were arguing specifically about the children: Would it be possible to raise a generation of committed Jewish children outside the Land of Israel? How would they be able to survive anti-Semitism? Would they be able to withstand the forces of assimilation? Rabbi J.B. Soloviechik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century, writing in “Bacho Tivkeh BaLayla[1]”, dissects the Tisha b’Av Torah reading. The reading tells of a future in which the Jewish People have left G-d and are subsequently exiled for their sins. The Torah predicts [Devarim 4:28] “There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” How can the Torah make such a prediction? Doesn’t this impinge on man’s free will? Rabbi Soloveichik gives the example of a person exiting an airplane on Christmas eve. When the flight attendant wishes him a “Merry Christmas”, who will not say “To you too”? Yet, by doing so, this person has, in some way, celebrated Christmas. Outside the Land of Israel, non-Jewish culture is so pervasive it is nearly impossible to avoid.

Gad and Reuven offer a counter-argument: We will build pens. We will cloister ourselves in closed communities like Thornhill, Glenhazel, and Teaneck. We will build Jewish schools, Kosher supermarkets and Jewish social services. Within these confines, our children will thrive. Moshe answers: Build as many pens as you want. Build the walls as high as you can. It will not help. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [119b] teaches “The world only exists because of the breath (i.e., reciting Torah) from the mouths of schoolchildren”. When Moshe concludes his admonition to Gad and Reuven by saying that they must do “that which comes from your mouths”, he is telling them that they are sacrificing the mouths of their schoolchildren for the mouths of their sheep, that they are sacrificing their world.

For two thousand years, the Jewish People have lived in exile. Again and again we have built pens and all have eventually been destroyed, from within and from without. How much are we willing to bet that Gad and Reuven had the right idea?

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, Iris bat Chana, and Yosef Binyamin ben Rochel Leah.

[1] This book was released this year in Israel. It is based on talks that Rabbi Soloveichik gave on Tisha b’Av in Boston over the years. It is a must-read book.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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