From Reuben and Gad Ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton. Wikimedia.
The question at the heart of this week’s double reading of Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13) strikes at the heart of what the Torah as a whole is actually about. At the very beginning of Genesis, Rashi opens his magisterial commentary with this hypothesis:
Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The Torah didn’t need to start other than with “This month shall be [your first month]” (Exodus 12:1), which is the first commandment the Israelites were commanded. Why then does it begin with “In the beginning”? This is because it says in Psalms (111:6): “He declared the power of His works to His people in order to give to them the inheritance of nations.” Thus, should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have taken by force the lands of the Seven Nations [of Canaan],” they shall say to them: “All the earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”
Rashi’s hypothesis would make sense if the conquest of the land of Israel actually took place in the course of the first book of the Torah, or the second, or the third. But it does not take place in any of the five books of the Torah, whose narrative breaks off with the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, leaving the messy business of conquest to the book of Joshua. And even that book, as my teacher Rabbi Hezi Cohen pointed out, contains fewer than 100 verses on the subject of warfare, being much more concerned with the problem of ethics and power once you’re in your own land.
As for the Torah as a whole, it’s concerned with much broader issues. Take, for example, the conversation in this week’s reading between Moses and the livestock-rich sons of Reuben and Gad:
But there were farm animals galore belonging to the sons of Reuben and sons of Gad,
A tremendous number and they saw the land of Etzar and the land of Gilad
And here the place was a place for grazing.
And the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben came
And spoke to Moses and Elazar the priest and the leaders of the community, saying:
“The country the Lord struck before the community of Israel is for livestock
And your servants have livestock.”
And they said, “If we’ve found favor in your eyes,
Let this land be given to your servants as an estate,
Don’t cross us over the Jordan.”
As the attentive reader will recall, this is not the first time in the Torah that livestock have figured at a critical juncture. Abraham and Lot discontinue their travel together because they have too many animals, and Lot, gazing at the rich pastureland in the cities of the plain, heads off in that direction. (To put it mildly, that didn’t turn out so well.) Later, Joseph’s brothers follow him down to Egypt to live in Goshen because of its rich pastureland. (And how did that turn out? A pattern is emerging here.) And now along come these livestock-happy fools. Have they learned nothing from the preceding books? Moses proceeds to slap them down:
But Moses told the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben: “Are your brothers coming to war
And you’ll settle here? Why do you stir the hearts of the children of Israel
From crossing over to the land the Lord gave them?”
So far, Moses seems to have no intention of letting them stay outside the land of Israel. Which must mean that Rashi’s right: the Torah isn’t a book of moral philosophy, it’s a real-estate prospectus. Or is it?
But they went up to him and said, “We’ll build pens for our sheep here
And cities for our children.
And we’ll swiftly trailblaze ahead of the children of Israel
Until we bring them to their places
While our children settle in cities fortified against the dwellers in the land.
We won’t return to our homes until each son of Israel has inherited his inheritance.
But we won’t inherit with them over the Jordan and beyond,
For our inheritance will have come to us on the eastern bank of the Jordan.
And Moses said to them: “If you fulfill this speech,
If you trailblaze before the Lord to the war,
And every trailblazer of you crosses the Jordan before God
Until He lets you inherit His enemies before Him
And when the land is conquered before the Lord
And after that you return—then you’ll be clear of the Lord and of Israel
And this land will be yours as an estate before God.
But if you don’t do so,
Here you’ve sinned before God
And know that your sin will find you out.
Build yourselves cities for your children
And pens for your sheep,
And what comes out of your mouth, follow through.
It turns out, then, that the Torah is not about the land of Israel, it’s about morality—anywhere. When the sons of Gad and Reuben ask for the rich land outside of Israel, Moses reacts initially in his role as warlord, not as spiritual leader. But then these tribesmen—who were among the fiercest fighters at his command—take charge of the negotiations and assure him that they will see the campaign through. At that point, Moses switches modes. Rather than insisting that they plan for villas in the Negev, he becomes entirely practical about the realities of building your life outside the land of Israel. Notably, he also reverses the order of their plan of action: where they put building their property and sheep pens first, Moses instructs them first to build cities that can protect their children from the inhabitants of the surrounding land.
The issue is not really what land you’re living on, but how you live on it. That’s why the central actions of the Torah take place in pre-Jewish Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai. The laws of moral reality that govern Jewish life obtain everywhere, and Moses’ job is to pound them into the heads of the Israelites. As he prepares to delegate his duties to Joshua, he also prepares the sons of Gad and Reuben for a life without him, and for that purpose the central question becomes: how will you raise your children? If you want to raise them properly, put their welfare ahead of your livestock’s. They’re your principal herd, and if you’re no longer moving through the desert but proposing to settle down then you’d better make provisions for educating them and keeping them distinct, or—guess what?—they won’t be distinct for long.
But Moses appointed over them Elazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun
And the leaders of the tribes of the children of Israel
And Moses told them, “If the sons of Gad and sons of Reuben cross
With you over the Jordan, each a trailblazer to the war before the Lord,
And the land is conquered before you,
Then give them the land of Gilad as an estate.
But if they don’t cross as trailblazers with you
Then they’ll take hold among you in the land of Canaan.”
If the land of Israel were the only place the Torah envisaged as a possible Jewish habitation, things would have looked different. But at this crucial juncture, with some Jews opting to stay outside the land, Moses postulates a moral hierarchy. It is certainly possible to stay outside the land, but extra effort is required. Over and over again, Moses repeats the word offered by the sons of Gad: ḥalutsim, pioneers or, in my translation, trailblazers—the same word that in our era was adapted to describe the early Zionist pioneers who returned to the land to prepare the way for a mass immigration from Europe (which never came). But “pioneer” doesn’t cover the entire meaning. I’ve opted for “trailblazer” because of its moral connotations: if you want to stay outside the land of Israel, you don’t just have to blaze a trail ahead of the rest of the community while conquering the land, you have to be a perpetual trailblazer: you yourself have to be the force that insulates your children from becoming lost among the surrounding tribes. If you do not keep your word to God, that is the sin that will find you out. And if you aren’t capable of such trailblazing, better to accept the lesser moral challenge of scrabbling to take root in Canaan amid the other tribes.
Not that that’s such a simple challenge, either:
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the prairie of Moab, saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and tell them—
You’re crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan
And you’ll disinherit all those settled in the land before you
And you’ll desecrate their mosaics, and all their graven images you’ll desecrate,
And all their platforms you’ll wipe out.
And you’ll dispossess the land and settle it
For to you I gave the land, to inherit it.
. . .
And if you don’t dispossess those settled in the land before you
Then whatever you leave of them
Shall be pokers in your eyes and burrs in your sides
And they’ll tie you in a knot over the land you’re settled in.
And then it shall be that what I thought to do to them, I’ll do to you.
The problem of living in and conquering the land of Israel is that it is not unoccupied; it has never been unoccupied. If the moral problem of living in it were simple, then Rashi’s scenario at the beginning of his Torah commentary would work fine: just show up on the other side of the Jordan, wave the first verse of Genesis at the first inhabitants you meet, and they’ll immediately start packing. But it isn’t like that. Even when Joshua conquers the land by force, armed with divine permission to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing, all it takes is for the Gibeonites to pose as a distant tribe and sue for a treaty and the children of Israel strike a deal allowing them to become the “woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly.” Even with divine sanction, dispossession and a clear conscience do not go together.
The upshot is that the land of Israel is another morally lethal environment:
But don’t defile the land you’re in
For blood will defile the land
And the land won’t be expiated for the blood spilled on it
Except by the blood of whoever spilled it.
Don’t contaminate the land you dwell in
That I dwell within
For I the Lord dwell within the children of Israel.
Here finally is the answer to the question posed by Rashi and the question posed to Moses by the ranchers. Real estate matters, but not ultimately: wherever Jews live, God lives within them. If you live in the land of Israel, you have to take care not to desecrate that land because the blood you spill will come back to haunt you. If you don’t live in the land of Israel, God is still within you, and you’d best communicate that fact to your children—because, whether stationary or moving, a herd of farm animals or of children needs to be led; it doesn’t lead itself. And wherever God lives, there are consequences to actions. If you don’t keep your word, your sin will find you out.