Parshat Matot seems to consist of a number of non-sequiturs. It begins with a discourse on the laws of oaths. The heads of the tribes -- -- are gathered together to receive these laws, hence the name of the portion.
Next, the Torah calls for vengeance against the Midianites, for their crime against the people of Israel. The wrath of Israel is centered around Balaam who attempted to curse the Children of Israel and who, we are told, "died by the sword." The Torah goes on to describe the ensuing battle, and the spoils of war with which the victorious army returns.
The subsequent section tells about the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who requested that they be allotted the grazing land outside of Israel, on the east bank of the Jordan River, in order to accommodate their very large herds. Moses chastises them for this request, and an arrangement is reached whereby these tribes will aid their brethren in the conquest, and only afterwards return to their lands across the River. The Torah adds that half of the tribe of Menashe, son of Joseph, will join them.
The connection with the laws of oaths, brought at this particular junction, is not immediately clear; however, this specific issue may be the link between the various topics covered in this Torah portion. As we shall see, the importance of one's word -- or indeed the power of the word -- is the common denominator.
We will consider vows which begins the portion and which also ends it, because the "deal" which the tribes of Reuben and Gad reached with Moses is considered by Jewish law as the archetypal oath; it contains many details of the laws of oaths. (See Kedushin 61a.)
This last episode, involving the tribes of Reuben and Gad, deserves further attention. It seems quite strange that two tribes are willing to form an allegiance and avoid entering the Land of Israel. Yet these tribes have a number of things in common.
First, they are both first-born to their respective mothers, Leah and Leah's maidservant Zilpah. Second, they have a common marching formation -- the two were in the same group, and when they marched they surrounded the tribe of Shimon. According to the Midrash, these two tribes were exceptionally wealthy, and therefore preferred to remain in the greener pastures outside the Land of Israel.
Likewise the case of the children of Gad, and the children of Reuben, you will find that they were rich, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the land of Israel, consequently they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 22:7)
Furthermore, the Midrash sees the section dealing with the spoils of war as directed against these two tribes, as if to say "if it is money which you seek, God has many ways of providing."
Know that when He (God) wished the sons of Reuben and Gad to become wealthy he sent the Midianites before them. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 22:8)
The Midrash goes even further in pointing out the warped value system of these tribes. When they approach Moses to argue their case and make their request, they mention their cattle before their children:
When Moses responds, he places the children before the cattle:
The message is subtle but clear: Owning cattle is fine, but do not for a second place material wealth above one's children. How could these people have their values so confused?
This confusion is indicated in yet another teaching: The Torah speaks of a city of refuge where a person who killed by accident can seek refuge. Three cities were built in Israel proper, while another three were built in the territory across the Jordan settled by Reuben, Gad, and Menashe. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, points out this obvious inequity, the division so disproportionate to the relative populations. Why would two-and-a-half tribes require the same number of cities of refuge as nine-and-a-half tribes? (See Rashi 35:14.)
There is a tradition, brought down in the Talmud (Makot 10a), that there was a disproportionate frequency of bloodshed in this territory. The obvious implication is that there was some sort of moral breakdown in that society. Something was wrong with the educational setup if people did not know how to take precautions which could save lives.
This is a further indication of the bizarre value system, which favored possessions over children. By the time the fighters from these tribes returned from the years of conquest and division of the land, an entire generation was raised without the benefit of their fathers. No wonder basic safety precautions were not taken. No wonder human life lost it value. After all, it was only people -- not cattle.
We can see how the moral breakdown echoed in the request of the two-and-a-half tribes affected the future, but what was its origin?
In Genesis we see Reuben standing out on a number of occasions. One such instance is at the sale of Joseph, where he heroically jumps into the fray and attempts to save Joseph from his tormentors. At that particular point in the text, Reuben's motivation escapes us. Only later, when Joseph was sold by the others and without Reuben's knowledge, we find out.
What may have seemed like a noble gesture turned out to be merely an expression of Reuben's responsibility as the eldest son. If something happened to Joseph, he felt that he would surely pay the price.
Later, as the story unfolds and the Egyptian vizier demands to see Benjamin before providing more food, Reuben offers that his own sons be killed in the event that Benjamin is not returned unscathed to Jacob.(See Genesis 42:37.) Needless to say, Jacob rejects this bizarre offer, but one can not help but wonder what type of effect this had on these children, knowing that their father was willing to exchange them.
Perhaps we can take this question one step further: What motivated Reuben's offer? Perhaps he suspected that because of his various indiscretions, he stood to lose the double portion of the first-born, and this offer was a gamble which could win that double portion back. He was willing to place his own children on the table as "markers" in this game of "high-risk poker."
Whether or not this is the case, the fact remains that Reuben does not seem to have placed a very high value on the lives of his children. We therefore should not be all that surprised when Reuben's descendants prioritize in a similar fashion, i.e., possessions before children.
Perhaps Gad, as a first-born from a different mother, identified with Reuben's "plight." This may also give us insight into the selection of Menashe, the third tribe which will join them. Why does Moses choose Menashe? Perhaps this tribe, as the descendants of Joseph, knows how to survive in a foreign environment. Joseph himself serves as the prototype of the saint who retains his values despite the temptations of the surrounding culture. On the other hand, it is fascinating that Menashe was also first-born of his mother, and he too was displaced in favor of his younger, more successful brother. (See Genesis 48:19.)
Perhaps these three, once united, commiserated on the inequity of losing the rights associated with being the older brother. Perhaps their pact was solidified around the decision to remain outside of the land which should have been theirs, more than anyone else's.
There is another approach which may provide us with further insight into the motivation of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, as well as the connections between the various sections of the Parshat Matot. When God calls Moses to ascend the mountain and see the Promised Land, the Sifri explains:
When Moses entered the portion of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben he was overjoyed, and said: 'It seems to me that my vow (the vow of God regarding Moses) has been lifted!' (Sifri, Pinchas section 23, cited in Rashi 27:12)
After striking of the rock, Moses knew that he could not enter the Land of Israel; thus was the will of God, the word of God. But even so, could God not break his own vow? The portion of Gad and Reuben was not part of the land, but one day it would be. Therefore, if they were to stay on the east side of the Jordan -- where Moses was permitted to enter -- and go on to fulfill their side of the deal, then their portion achieves the same status as the rest of the Land of Israel, and effectively God's vow is nullified, because Moses had in fact entered the land.
In this light, the various parts of this Torah portion become a cohesive whole:
1. Moses teaches the laws and intricacies of oaths. One important part of these laws is that oaths can be challenged and rescinded.
2. Once the tribes of Reuben and Gad hear this, they devise a plan for Moses to join them in Israel. If the vow precluding Moses' entrance to Israel could be reversed, then perhaps the loss of the double portion of Reuben can also be reversed.
3. Moses, for his part, does not seem interested in subterfuge. He continues his mission -- what is to be his last task. He takes immediate steps to fulfill the Divine order to seek vengeance against Midian.
The Midrash makes the following comment on the actions of Moses:
Delaying the battle and, as a result, his own demise, would have caused the Children of Israel to linger in the desert. Instead, Moses sets off on his final mission, even though its completion will drawn his own death nearer. Even one unnecessary day in the desert was too high a price to be paid; the welfare of the nation always came before personal considerations, and Moses immediately, heroically, sends Joshua to battle the Midianites.
Another Midrash offers some details of the events on the last day of Moses' life, some of which are germane to this discussion:
A heavenly voice came out and said: 'You have but three hours in this world.' Moses said, 'Master of the universe, let me remain with children of Gad and the children of Reuben ... and Joshua will rule and bring the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel.' (Otzar Midrashim Eisenstein page 356)
According to this Midrash, Moses himself makes the suggestion that he remain in the portion of Gad and Reuben. God explains that such an arrangement is impossible. If Moses were alive and remained in Jordan during the major holidays, who would go to Israel when they could be with Moses?
A person like Moses can not simply retire and slip out of the public eye. God explains that ultimately such an arrangement would destroy the Torah.
Moses surely does not want to be party to any suggestion which would have a negative effect on the people or the Torah. And therefore, he carries out God's order without delay whatever the consequences to himself.
Moses's approach differs from that of Gad and Reuben in that Moses does not seek to harm the integrity of the Torah, or the Jewish people, whereas Reuben and Gad's suggestion ultimately harmed their own children.
The earlier indiscretion of Reuben himself, when he intimated that his children were expendable, reemerges to harm his descendants.
Be it motivated by their love of money, or their twisted love for Moses, the result of parents letting their children know that they are not their most valued "possession," proved disastrous for these tribes. Children inevitably learn from the actions and values of their parents.
Therefore, the east bank of the Jordan River became a place of violence and bloodshed, and the children of these tribes were the first to be exiled.