Yehonatan Ben Israel

The Iron Courage of the Tribe of Gad

“Forward, for God’s sake, forward!”~Final words of US Corps Commander John Reynolds

“Courage is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees the others.” ~Aristotle

“All of my life I have looked for death on the battlefield, and there is not a place on my body where there is not a scar. Yet here I lie dying in bed like an old camel. May the cowards never know peace!”~Khaled Ibn al-Walid

“Of Gad he (Moses) said: Blessed is he who broadens Gad; he dwells like a lion, tearing off arm and scalp. He chose for him the best, for there is the portion of the revered chieftain, where the heads of people come. He executed Hashem’s judgements and his decisions for Israel.” ~Deuteronomy 33:20-21

In the summer of 1863 during the American Civil War, both American and Rebel armies converged on the town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Though the American army was larger and more well-equipped, the Rebel army reached the town first, and what small part of the American army was there found itself outnumbered. It was at this moment that Gen. John Reynolds moved his forces forward to engage the rebel army. He saw that even though the rest of the American army had not arrived to reinforce him, that if his forces held their ground, that it would buy time for the rest of the American army to secure the high ground beyond the town, and thus be at a strategic advantage. Though he was a corps. commander, he took personal charge of what had became known as his “Iron Brigade” in order to rally his men to stand and fight. For those of us who don’t know what that means, it means that normally a general of his rank didn’t usually come so close to the front lines, but in this case in order to encourage his men, he moved up close in range of enemy fire. Before his immediate death by an enemy sniper, his final words were “Forward, for God’s sake forward!”

Though Gen. Reynolds was killed in battle and his corps. took some heavy casualties, in the end his sacrifice and that of many others in the following days brought the Union its first victory against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army on the fields of Gettysburg.

Strategically speaking, for any army, usually the first contact with the enemy is the scariest if not most dangerous part of the battle, and it is those on the front lines who require the most courage, because they stand eye to eye with the situation, while those who give orders hide behind them.

This was essentially the job of the tribe of Gad in the nation of Israel. Indeed, to be a soldier in the tribe of Gad would have required the utmost courage in battle. The willingness to be the first to confront the unknown and risk life and limb on the front lines for the sake of the rest of our nation.

In her book Tribal Lands, Tamara Weissman describes Gad as “A gedud, or shock troop,” as per Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. She further writes,

“Gad’s future was clearly on the battlefield. The tribal iconography was explicit: the tribe’s stone on the priestly breastplate was the shevo, or crystal, symbolic of courage in battle (Rabbenu Bahya, Exodus 28:19), and their flag was embossed with an army tent or fortress… Perhaps even the colors of the flag, described as ‘neither white nor black’, but a mix of black and white,’ might hint to the moral and physical complexities of the battlefield–Gad’s turf.”

For many of us, especially in considering a video clip of a competent general dying in battle, accessing such an energy like that of the tribe of Gad can be discomforting. Did this man really need to put himself in such harm’s way? Perhaps military historians could debate this topic, and yet, to truly rally an outnumbered army for an imperative stand requires the average grunt to know that his general is there risking his life with them. To quote another US Infantry Corps commander Gen Winfield Scott Hancock when told to move to the rear, “There are times when a corp. commander’s life does not count!” And again, his being there was to rally his men to stand strong in the face of the storming rage of the battle at hand, to let his men know that their general was with them.

I heard once from a rabbi whose name I will not divulge that despite his expressing positivity of the creation of the state of Israel, that towards the end of his shiur he said passionately, “No one should ever die for their country!” But that is exactly the extreme self-sacrifice that we see in the courage of the tribe of Gad. To position oneself in the front lines is to risk one’s life and look death straight in the eye. And for the defense of a country, this kind of energy is required. This is, what we would call in Hebrew, “mesirut nefesh”–self-sacrifice for a cause greater than one’s own comfort and wellbeing.

Funnily enough, I’m even reminded of one of my coworkers in my new job in doing welding and repairs, who has told me many a time on the job in the recent weeks in Hebrew, “Yehonatan, you need to be gahs!” or sometimes when paying me a compliment he’d say, “Yehonatan, you’re a man of gahs!” “Gahs,” though it could be translated as “impolite” and “course,” at least in this particular context it would be translated to mean, “tough,” “bold,” “blatant,” “rough,” and not timid in doing a job that may have some pain and strain involved. Under this positive context, this was precisely the warrior tribe of Gad. Apologies for the crudeness, but it even reminds me of a law enforcement officer at one point telling me in training on the job that I “Needed to access my inner a– —e” and become bolder.

It should further be noted that in the taking of the land of Israel detailed in the book of Joshua, that the tribe of Gad was not fighting for his own portion of land (He had already solidified his on the eastern side of the Jordan river), but was fighting for his brother tribes and helping them in taking their portions of the land–the courageous personality of the tribe of Gad translated itself into selfless acts of sacrifice for those around him, and no doubt certainly rallied the rest of the tribes for battle in seeing such fantastic self-sacrifice and boldness.

Ironically, when it comes to the months of the Jewish year, according to the Ari Zal it is the tribe of Gad which coincides with the month of Elul. In other words, the implied message is that in order to truly look into ourselves in the month of Elul, to see where our faults are and where and how to fix them, we need to be… well, just a little bit more “gahs” with ourselves. We the Jewish nation, as well as anyone else requires courage to fight our own inner battles as well as those on the outside. Looking inside of ourselves and seeing ourselves as we truly are and how to fix ourselves up in this month requires this kind of strength of the tribe of Gad, even if it may means confessing to some of our peers in the open for the wrongs we’ve committed.

Indeed, these days it seems so easy to suffer the delusion that “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Yet to slack off in our observance as Jews is like a soldier not showing up to formation and a form of going AWOL (And you can ask any soldier how much of a bad thing that is!). We have to know that there is a process of growth, but we also must acknowledge where we need to improve ourselves and try to push forward where we can.

Of course we may also try and hide ourselves and act like we have it all together… just as it seems like everyone else does. Here’s a cover to blow: no one these days has their life completely together, and if they say they do, they’ve probably fooled themselves as well! In the ever so fake and superficial world of social media, if we all knew how hilariously flawed all of our own peers were, most of us degenerate goofballs wouldn’t be embarrassed to confess about anything. Yet our greatest fear is defamation–all of us afraid to speak up and say that “the emperor has no clothes,” and that ironically, the naked emperor is all of us. 

This is a place where most of us stand in fear. Looking into our own inner demons and accepting them, and then learning to use our own personal dark side for good, much like any good warrior from the tribe of Gad would have done. This is why I posted a video of a general shouting and rallying his men right before getting shot and killed, because the fear of our own personal “death” is there. Death of reputation. Death of our own personal pride. Death of our own personal social status should we at certain times dare to make a confession or an improvement that some of our friends would find offensive, distasteful, and “holier than thou.” As Marcus Aurelius said it once, “It never ceases to amaze me. We care more about ourselves than anyone else, yet we care more about other people’s opinions about us than our own!”

To draw an even more ironically pertinent saying of his pertaining to our context above, “Death smiles on us all. All anyone can really do is smile back!”

This also pertains to we as a nation as a whole– on the very real field of battle. There are days when a Gad-like spirit in our nation must rise up and say, “I prefer real conflict over fake peace,” that the truth is that this is the land where we truly belong, and that no one–including the United States and Europe with their sad accusations of “apartheid” has the right to dispute this. And yet again, doing so certainly requires an extremely unpopular boldness and courage.

Sometimes I even wonder if the greatest thing that ever happened to we, the state of Israel was to be surrounded by enemies, if only to teach us to learn to become the warriors we always were again after so many years of cowering and relying on the security of whatever fickle government we lived under during our long exile. Coming back to the land of Israel after nearly 2,000 years, we have a great opportunity to grow in becoming a great spiritual light unto the nations, but getting there is going to require the confrontational courage of the tribe of Gad–both in our inner and exterior battles, because only a warrior mindset of breaking through obstacles can both build and defend such an entity.

Thus, may we all in the spirit of the tribe of Gad, be able to look our own conquests in the eyes–whether they be the physical conquest of our land and protection of our brothers, or the conquest of new spiritual growth in our souls which translates to action–and that we all be able to shout like Gen. John Reynolds, “Forward, for God’s sake forward!”

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Northern Israel with his wife, daughter, and son.