Mattot-Mase: Letting possessions rule life

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Numbers 30:2-36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-2:28, 3,4

As we pick up the story, the Israelites, after nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert, have waged war against the Midianites on the east side of the Jordan, conquering substantial property on the east side of the Jordan river. Though they have not yet crossed the Jordan to try to take possession of the Promised Land of Israel, for the first time in their history, the Israelites have land.

The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad notice that this land would provide excellent conditions for raising their substantial holdings in livestock. They mention this fact to Moses (Numbers 32:4), but get no reaction. So the leaders of these tribes approach Moses again, with a politely phrased proposition: "If we find favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as our holding, and do not bring us across the Jordan" (Numbers 32:5).

Moses, the patient leader, immediately launches a tirade against the spokespersons of the Reubenites and Gadites (Numbers 32:6-15). He accuses them of shirking responsibility, of sitting out the danger while their brothers go to war, of disheartening the Israelites, of discouraging the whole enterprise of settling in Israel. He compares their proposal to the faithless report of the fearful spies (in Numbers 13 and following) who deprived the rest of the Israelites of the hope of winning the land.

The spokespersons wait patiently, without interrupting, for Moses to finish speaking. As he speaks, it seems that they take a step or two backward, for when he has finished, the text says they have to "approach" him to respond (Numbers 32:16). Their response seems tactful; perhaps they have been misunderstood. They wish to build enclosures for their cattle and cities for their children, but they will go as pioneers before the rest of the Israelites, to conquer the Promised Land for them.

Perhaps indeed they have been misunderstood. An ancient rabbi understood the story that way, and so drew the conclusion that one should listen patiently to the rebuke of a wise person, even if that rebuke seems based on a misperception. On the other hand, as Meir Sternberg argues, perhaps they change their position, in view of the angry response to their original proposal (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 244). Once they have "explained" that they plan to take a role as part of Israel, Moses in large measure accepts their offer, restating it and only gently modifying it. When they offer to take their share of the risks, his anger is gone.

Any number of motives could justify the first proposal, staying in the good land beyond the Jordan and not entering Israel. This land beyond the Jordan has already been conquered, and who knows if the Israelites will ever conquer the Promised Land? Members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad can live in the land beyond the Jordan without engaging in any more wars of conquest.

The motive that the text gives for their proposal has to do with their cattle. The first verse of the biblical account of their proposal begins and ends with the word "mikneh," cattle as a possession (32:1); thereafter, the spokespersons use the word frequently. Even in the modified proposal, as Rashi notes, they list their need to build all- important enclosures for their cattle first, and then their need to build cities for their children (32:15).

Cattle. I cannot help hearing an echo of American Jewry in that theme. We, too, have become accustomed to what we own. Not many of us own cattle, but we measure our lives with other possessions. We, too, have difficulty imagining living with less. And I cannot help hearing a challenge to American Jewry — at least, to committed American Jews — in Moses' tirade against the wealth-loving tribes: "Shall you sit here?".

I have heard reasons why Jews who care about Israel, and define themselves as Zionist, and believe in aliyah (immigration to Israel) still choose to live someplace else.

We say: "We can do more for Israel in the United States. After all, what country has supported Israel as consistently as the United States?"

We say: "Who will teach American Jews if not we? After all, America's committed Jews must make the sacrifice of staying for the benefit of the rest of American Jewry."

We say: "We have to serve as a light to the nations." Some of us used to say: "How can I consider going to Israel, when it has a right-wing government?" Others now say, "How can I go to Israel, when it has a left-wing government?"

But when I read this chapter, I think that the secret has been revealed.

We like the cattle.