Sarah C. Rudolph
Sarah C. Rudolph
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Sometimes, it’s all in how you ask

Miscommunication almost brought down the Jewish people before they even were the Jewish people (Matot/Masai)
'The army of the twelve tribes, with Moses, the Levites and the Tabernacle,' by Jan Luyken, 1700. Amsterdam Museum (public domain)
'The army of the twelve tribes, with Moses, the Levites and the Tabernacle,' by Jan Luyken, 1700. Amsterdam Museum (public domain)

When the tribes of Reuben and Gad first ask to settle on the east side of the Jordan, Moses objects – but he does not reject their request.

Why does he object, and if there is good cause to object, why not simply say no?

At first glance, the request is eminently reasonable; in fact, some commentaries suggest the story is deliberately introduced in a way that legitimizes their request even before it was made:

The children of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of cattle…and they saw the land of Ya’zer, and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle. (Numbers 32:1)

They have a lot of cattle, and the land they had already conquered was a good place for cattle. Hmm… The reader can easily see where this is going.

And they make their request in basically the same terms:

The land which God smote before the congregation of Israel is a land of cattle – and your servants [i.e., we] have cattle.

Hint, hint.

The conclusion is obvious — they should live there! After all, it’s land that “God smote” for them; perhaps they assume He intended it to be part of the Promised Land, a perfectly appropriate place for them to settle.

But if Moses took the hint, he wasn’t going to let them off that easy. Instead of the response these two tribes might have expected — “Oh, yes, of course! You should settle here! Great idea!” — that initial broaching of the topic is followed in the next verse by a repeated “vayom’ru — and they said.” If the narrative voice has to say “and they said” again, they must have stopped “saying” in between. We can imagine the awkward pause as the representatives of Reuben and Gad look at each other and shuffle their feet and clear their throats, as Moses remains ominously silent, and then “they say” further, spelling it out:

If we have found favor in your sight [um, maybe, from your silence, we haven’t?] – let this land be given to your servants [i.e., us] as a possession; don’t bring us over the Jordan.

Why did Moses make them say it outright? Didn’t he realize where they were going with that opening?

Maybe he did take the hint, but wanted them to say the words themselves — because the words are important.

And how do they say it?

Don’t bring us over the Jordan.

This, to the man who was recently informed (Numbers 20:12) that he would not be permitted to cross the Jordan, though he desperately wanted to. This, to the man who saw his people wander for decades in the wilderness, while a generation died out, because of the last time they expressed hesitation about crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Moses’ sharp response does not bring up his personal disappointment, but highlights issues on two interconnected planes: the relationship of these tribes with the rest of the nation, and their relationship with God.

To the first, Moses exclaims (verse 6):

Will your brothers come to war while you sit here?

(A powerful rebuke that reverberates in my heart every time tensions rise in Israel, while I sit comfortably in Ohio.)

How could they suggest that their fellows risk their lives in pursuit of God’s promise — of their ostensibly shared destiny — while these two tribes are getting comfortably settled in just over the river? They all fought Sihon and Og. Are Reuben and Gad to simply reap the benefits of those battles while the rest of the Children of Israel fend for themselves? What sort of brotherhood would that be?

And second, Moses gives them a little lesson on the recent history that they seem to have forgotten:

Why will you turn the heart of the Children of Israel from crossing to the land that God has given them? This is what your ancestors did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land!

Did they learn nothing from the episode of the spies? They should know by now — ix-nay on the egativity-nay — don’t say you don’t want to enter the land across the Jordan!

For nine verses, Moses castigates the spokesmen of Reuben and Gad, reminding them of the nation’s past sin and suggesting they are “anashim chata’im — sinful men” (vs. 14), just like those ancestors, who risk awakening God’s wrath all over again.

So, there are two problems: rejection of God’s promise, and rejection of their brethren. Avoidance — even denial? — of the good promised by God, and avoidance of the bad, the dangers their fellows will unquestionably face.

If their request is so problematic, why not just say no?

Perhaps for the same reason I don’t always say no to my kids when they ask for something objectionable — because sometimes, it is not the request, but the way it was made. A recent example that comes to mind: one child often has good reason to leave the Shabbat table before the rest of us, but if what I hear is “Can I leave?” then it’s hard to say yes. So I might prevaricate a bit — “What? You don’t want to sit and chat with us?” – until I get something more polite, such as, “I told a friend I would come over; may I be excused?” The difference: it is not a rejection of those present, but working towards a particular need.

“Don’t bring us over the Jordan.”

Remember, the narrative started with a hint to the reader: Their suggestion is reasonable. These tribes, apparently, are different from the others; they have needs that the others might not have, and the land east of the Jordan is a good place to fill their needs. But how to frame that so their needs are met without appearing to rebuff the others, or the land to the west, or God who promised them that land?

As part of a unit — a family, a society, a nation; any collection of individuals and groups who differ but share common ground — sometimes it is not enough to think about the inherent reasonableness of what we are doing. We might like to imagine, in today’s world, that concern with how things look is beneath us, but sometimes it matters. It matters because miscommunications and misunderstandings can quickly spiral into painful divisiveness that overshadows the best of intentions.

One might wonder, when the two tribes go on with their offer to fight alongside the others before settling in for good (verses 16-19): Did Moses prompt them to revise their original plan, or was this their plan all along and Moses’s objections simply prompted them to spell it out? Maybe that was always their intention; they just forgot to say so. And maybe Moses chose to object rather than reject precisely because he knew they didn’t really mean anything as bad as how it sounded.

(I would argue that this sort of miscommunication is behind the nuance Rashi (on verse 16) points out, from midrash, regarding their apparent prioritizing of livestock over family. They may well have mentioned livestock first in verse 16 only because that was the issue on their minds at the moment – it was, in fact, the reason for the entire present conversation – not because they actually cared about their livestock more. As a parent who often has to work before I can spend time with my children, and who has been repeatedly reminded by airlines to secure my own oxygen mask before that of my child, I am well aware of the need to sometimes do other things first even though nothing is more important than my children. Perhaps the midrash is not really suggesting that Reuben’s and Gad’s priorities were misplaced but is reminding us to communicate our real priorities clearly, lest anyone be misled by simple chronological precedence.)

With the idea of settling on the east at the forefront of their own minds, perhaps they simply forgot to think about what their request might bring to the forefront of others’ minds and how to allay the impression of rejection. They simply had to be reminded, and coached a bit, to say it all and say it right.

An ongoing problem

The idea that the root issue behind Moses’ objection was a matter of miscommunication — and especially, miscommunication regarding their allegiance to God and the rest of the people of Israel — is supported, somewhat sadly, by a later incident in which that was clearly the issue.

In Joshua 22, the tribes of Reuben and Gad (along with, by then, the half-tribe of Menashe) have fulfilled their promise and Joshua releases them to finally go settle in with their children and their flocks on the east side. On their way, however, they build a monument on the bank of the river – a monument that looks suspiciously like an altar. The other nine-and-a-half tribes are horrified: much like Moses had called them to remember (and learn from) the catastrophe of the spies, the nine-and-a-half tribes send a message reminding their fellows of the sin of Pe’or-worship and that setting up sacrifices outside the Tabernacle is a sure way to get the entire nation in trouble. “Don’t rebel against God and don’t rebel against us by building yourselves an altar other than the altar of Hashem, our God” (22:19). Once again, it looks very much as though Reuben and Gad (and now, half of Menashe) are betraying their connection with their brethren as well as their relationship with God.

Only, it turns out that the two-and-a-half tribes had not intended it as a functional altar; it was “a great altar to see” (ibid. 10). The two-and-a-half tribes, in fact, are horrified themselves — at being so wrongfully accused. “God…knows, and Israel will know, whether in rebellion and whether in betrayal of God… Or whether out of concern for a matter, we did this, saying: Tomorrow, your children will say to our children, ‘What have you to do with Hashem, the God of Israel?’” (ibid. 22-24). The tribes on the east were not trying to divest themselves of God-worship; on the contrary, they wanted to establish a visible symbol to remind future generations of the unity among the nation, across the Jordan, under God — so that no one would ever try to say they were not part of the people of Israel and servants of the God of Israel, just because a river runs between them.

They just forgot to say that that was what they were doing — and absent that explanation, it looked pretty bad. Kind of like, “Don’t take us across the Jordan.” Without explanation, the very monument they hoped would solidify their unity almost brought about a civil war that could have divided them forever (See here, for a closer look at the story in Joshua 22).

Clean in the eyes of God and man

Back in Numbers 32, after the tribes of Reuben and Gad understand Moses’ objections and explain themselves better, Moses agrees:

If you will do this… and the land will be conquered, and afterwards you will return – and you will be clean from God and from Israel, and this land will be a possession for you before Hashem.

Moses cautions that they must “be clean from God and from Israel” — a phrase that has since been borrowed in many contexts to express being above suspicion not just in the eyes of God, who always knows, but in the eyes of man — who “will know,” who must know, who often must be told, in order to preserve the ties that bind us. For example, the Talmud cites this verse as a basis for a number of rules regarding the donation and distribution of charity, such as what not to wear when entering a charity-collection room — because if you go in with pockets, people might think you’re lining them.

Moses wants them to understand the need to not just be squeaky clean [in God’s eyes, and one’s own], but to look it [in others’ eyes]. He wants them to understand that it is possible to be different without being divisive, to maintain unity despite physical distance — but that it takes work. It takes stepping out of one’s own frame of mind and focus, to think about the others in one’s circle and how to convey one’s needs within the whole and transcend that distance. It takes really careful communication — and it takes commitment, and follow-through.

There is great popular wisdom in living for oneself, according to what one deems correct, without regard for what others think. We celebrate walking to the beat of one’s own drummer without concern for anyone else’s opinions — and that might be appropriate, necessary, and indeed worthy of celebration, in many contexts. But there are fundamentals that bind people together, that cannot be ignored — the drum beats that unite us, such as a shared commitment to God and to each other and to a national destiny. It is hard to maintain those ties when one thinks another is betraying them, and no one stops to talk.

An ongoing challenge

Unfortunately, despite Moses’ guidance and the tribes’ efforts, the story of the tribes on the east of the Jordan does not end well. Conflict persists, in Joshua 22 and beyond. According to one view (Petichta to Eicha Rabba, siman 5), they were first to be exiled, establishing forever their separation from “the Children of Israel proper.” (Note how, both here and in Joshua 22, the phrase “the Children of Israel” is sometimes used to refer to the majority of the nation, as if these two (-and-a-half) tribes are not part of the group.)

We might, therefore, read the overall story with despair, thinking the bridging of gaps is hopeless. It was a failed experiment after all; if we are too separate, too different, we cannot possibly remain united.

Or, we can read the story and be motivated to try harder. To communicate better. Moses gave them a chance because it was possible, and I have to believe it’s possible for all of us today, too.

As we approach the day of Tisha B’Av and its intense mourning for our prolonged exile and the destructions of the two Temples — the second of which is said to have been destroyed because of sinat chinam, “free” hatred — it might be a good time to consider both how our own communications might be sending unintended messages and how we might be reading unintended meaning into others’ communications. It might be a good time to think about how to talk to each other better, to ask questions and to clarify, to state the positive even when we think it is an obvious backdrop to our current (negative) point. It might be a good time to remember that we are all in this world together, despite whatever divides us, and that the best way to live together is to talk openly about both what divides us and what unites us. Being sure of ourselves will not cut it, if others cannot be sure of us too.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, Lehrhaus, and more, and she serves as Editor-At-Large, Deracheha: Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and
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