Which comes first: Welfare of community, or self-interest

Numbers 30:2-36:13
Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2

Some years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Jordan, where I stood on Mt. Nebo. That is the place, according to the Bible, where Moses stood when he viewed the Promised Land before the Israelites entered and occupied it. Looking west, the faint outline of Jerusalem was visible beyond the Dead Sea and the uninhabited desert; looking east, I was struck by the lush beauty of the Jordan Valley, a sight that helps explain a puzzling incident in Mattot, this week’s Torah portion.

In advance of the conquest of Canaan, the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad tried to secure the ownership of the Jordan Valley: “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers … The land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country … ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.'” (Num. 32:1-16)

Moses was not pleased that these tribes hoped to reside outside the Promised Land and not participate in the conquest of Canaan, an action that would require the cooperation of every able-bodied man. Moses berated them, questioned their loyalty to God and the Israelite community and told them that they were as bad as the generation that turned its back on Joshua’s favorable report of the desirability and feasibility of occupying Canaan. (See: Num. 32:8-13)

Moses railed against these tribal leaders, saying, “If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people.” (Num. 32:15) Furthermore, Moses chastised these Israelites with a more subtle message. In response to the statement, “We will build here (then) sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” (Num. 32:16), Moses inverted the order of priority by saying, “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks” (Num. 32:24), suggesting that in addition to their self-centered independent action, the leaders of Reuben and Gad valued their possessions and wealth more than they valued their children and families.

Nevertheless, taken aback by the vehemence of Moses’ condemnation, the tribal representatives acceded to joining all of the tribes in the conquest of Canaan.

This sanctimonious perspective of tribal leaders is further evidenced by a later incident in which Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, living far from the officially authorized shrines of ancient Israel, hoped to establish their own place of worship. By the Jordan they erected a “great conspicuous altar” that earned them further reproof for their independence. But, once again, they kowtowed to Joshua’s censure, telling him that they built the shrine not for worship, but only for show:

“We did this thing only out of concern that, in time to come, your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between you and us, O Reubenites and Gadites; you have no share in the Lord!’ So we decided to provide (a witness) for ourselves by building an altar — not for burnt offerings or (other) sacrifices, but as a witness between you and us, and between the generations to come —that we may perform the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt offerings, our sacrifices and our offerings of well-being; and that your children should not say to our children in time to come, ‘You have no share in the Lord.’

“We reasoned: should they speak thus to us and to our children in time to come, we would reply, ‘See the replica of the Lord’s altar, which our fathers made — not for burnt offerings or sacrifices, but as a witness between you and us.'” (Joshua 22:24-29)

These incidents recorded in Mattot and in the Book of Joshua raise a recurrent question repeatedly asked throughout Jewish history: Should Jews put the welfare of the entire community before individual self-interest? As in these accounts, this tension frequently results in conflict but, nevertheless, continues to serve as a warning to the Jewish community, one that all of today’s Jews would be wise to be mindful of.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.