In Parshat Matot (Bamidbar 32:1-5), we read about how the tribes of Reuven and Gad requested to settle in Transjordan rather than cross the Jordan into the Land of Israel with the rest of B’nai Yisrael:
Very large herds belonged to the tribes of Reuven and Gad- an extremely large number; they saw the land of Ya’zeir and the land of Gilad, and behold the region was an area for livestock. The tribes of Reuven and Gad came and spoke to Moshe and to Elazar the Kohen, and to the princes of the community saying: “Atarot, Divon, Ya’zeir, Nimrah, Cheshbon, Elaleh, Sevam and Be’on, the land that God struck down before B’nai Yisrael, is an area of livestock; and your servants have livestock.” They said: “If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not bring us across the Jordan.”
The Midrash, Bamidbra Rabba 22:7 teaches:
In the case of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven, you find that they were wealthy, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the Land of Israel. Consequently, they were the first of the tribes to go into exile as we see in Divrei HaYamim I 5:26: “And the God of Israel stirred the spirit of King Pul of Assyria and the spirit of King Tilgat Pilneser of Assyria- and he exiled the Reuvenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Menashe and led them away to Helah, Havor, Hara and the Gozon River to this day.” What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brothers because of their possessions…
Were the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe exiled first?
The Midrash, Eicha Rabba, Ptichta 5 asks:
In what order were the tribes exiled?
Rabbi Elazar says: the tribes of Reuven and Gad (and half the tribe of Menashe) went into exile first. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman says: The tribes of Zevulun and Naftali went into exile first as it says in Yishayahu 8:23: “He was not wearied the first time that the land was distressed. At the first, He lightly affected the land of Zevulun and the land of Naftali and afterwards He afflicted her more grievously by the road to the sea, beyond the Jordan to the Galil of the nations.”
The Midrash asks: How then does Rabbi Elazar interpret the verse from Yishayahu?
As the tribes of Reuven and Gad went into exile, so did the tribes of Zevulun and Naftali go into exile.
Buber explains the verse to mean that the tribes of Zevulun and Naftali had the same experience as had already befallen Reuven and Gad.
The Vilna Gaon follows the opinion of Rabbi Elazar that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe were exiled first. His proof is in the Talmud, Arachin 32b:
When the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were exiled (in the First Temple era) the Yovalot (Jubilee years) were suspended (as Yovel only applies when all 12 tribes are settled in the Land of Israel).
From here it is clear that Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were exiled first otherwise the Yovalot would have been suspended earlier.
The exile was brought in stages in order to give B’nai Yisrael a chance to do Tshuva (return to God). In line with Rabbi Elazar’s view, In 732-733 BCE Tiglat Pileser, King of Assyria conquered the Gilad area (where Reuven Gad and half of Menashe were located) and exiled them to Assyria. A few years later, the tribes of Zevulun and Naftali were exiled and in 720 BCE, after a three year siege by Shalmanesser, Sargon II King of Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel and exiled them to Assyria. In 586 BCE the Kingdom of Yehuda and the tribe of Binyamin fell in the hands of the Babylonians and the First Temple was destroyed.
It seems from the sources above that Reuven, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe were exiled first as retribution for the fact that under Moshe’s leadership, they were not interested in crossing over the Jordan and preferred to settle in Transjordan. Unfortunately, instead of waking up the rest of B’nai Yisrael, their exile started the ball rolling for the ultimate exile of all of the tribes.
May we continue to see the return of the exiled tribes to the modern State of Israel and may we learn from past mistakes that the fear of a lack of physical comforts should not be a deterrent for making aliya especially now that there are more comforts and employment opportunities in Israel than there have ever been before.