The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tammuz 22, 5769/July 14, 2009

"The children of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of livestock very numerous..."
(Numbers 32:1)

We have arrived at the concluding chapters of the book of Numbers, and the children of Israel have arrived at the conclusion of their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. Having soundly vanquished their enemies that tried to deny them access to the land of Canaan, the land promised them by G-d, they are literally days from crossing the Jordan and inheriting the land. It is at this very moment, this temporary lull before the dawn of a new age, that the leaders of the children of Reuven and Gad approach Moses:

"Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, and Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the L-rd struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock." (Numbers 32:3) The land they refer to lies east of the Jordan River. It is good land, vacant, and certainly of great strategic value for insuring the security of the land of Israel, west of the Jordan, once the Israelites have conquered and settled it. The request of Reuven and Gad to stay behind and settle this land, was, by many standards, reasonable, perhaps even inspired.

Yet Moses is beside himself with anger. He accuses them of breaking ranks with their brethren, who will yet have to fight for their share of the land of Israel. He accuses them of being guilty of the same sin that their fathers, the spies, had committed, when they turned their back on G-d's land, and chose to remain in the desert. Attempting to assuage Moses' anger and to deflect his accusation of opting out of the upcoming battles, they assure Moses:

"We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place. Our children will reside in the fortified cities on account of the inhabitants of the land. We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance." (ibid 16-19)

Although Moses accepts this compromise, their words betray them, revealing a tragic inversion of priorities, an error in their understanding of themselves, Torah, and the eternal bond which has been forged between themselves, G-d and the land of Israel. By mentioning their livestock first, and their children only second, they are stating loud and clear that their material comfort takes precedence over the upbringing of their children and the future of their people. If the baseless wailing that accompanied the return of the spies and their evil report would prove a source of tears and sorrow for generations, then this sin of settlement outside of the borders of Israel (by choice) would likewise prove a snare and a source of endless misery up to this very day.

How ironic that when the spies protested that the land of Canaan would be unsafe for their young children, G-d decreed that only those very same children would survive the desert experience and enter the land. And now these same aging children, who received in their youth such Divine assurance, turn their backs again, on G-d and the land. The only way to break the cycle and put paid to the tragedy of generation after generation of Jews living and dying outside of the land is by choosing our children over our comforts, placing their future over our present, and exchanging any material inheritance they might enjoy after we perish, with the spiritual inheritance promised them by the living G-d. Assurances of assistance from our brothers overseas will never fill the void we feel by their absence here in the land. From our very first steps into freedom we have yearned, "until Your people cross over, O L-rd, until this nation that You have acquired crosses over." (Exodus 15:16)

Tune in to the week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the concluding chapters of the Book of Numbers, parashot Matot-Masei: the 42 journeys across the desert sands, the journey of our lives. These three weeks of heightened Temple consciousness: an opportunity to "pursue G-d" and increase holiness. Pinchas and Eliyahu, a foretaste of the coming redemption, Reuven & Gad - cattle & kids: what takes precedence?

Part 1
Part 2