Parshas Matos-Masei has Bnei Yisrael right on the border of Eretz Yisrael, making final preparations to enter the land. However, two of the tribes were seemingly not as eager to enter Eretz Yisrael.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad came to Moshe with a request. The pasuk reads, “הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְהוָה לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה הִוא וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ מִקְנֶה. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִם מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ יֻתַּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ “הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ לַאֲחֻזָּה... “The land that Hashem struck down before the congregation of Yisrael is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.’ They said, ‘If it pleases you, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage” (Bamidbar 32:5-6). As the pasuk explains, these two tribes had a larger amount of animals than the rest of the tribes, so they wanted to remain on the other side of the Jordan River in order to raise their flocks in the superior grazing areas found there.
Moshe, however, is not happy with this request. He gets upset at them, and tells them how the last time someone didn’t want to go into Eretz Yisrael, the entire nation wandered in the desert for forty years! They come back to him to further explain their request.
“וַיֹּאמְרוּ גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ. וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם הֲבִיאֹנֻם אֶל מְקוֹמָם וְיָשַׁב טַפֵּנוּ בְּעָרֵי הַמִּבְצָר מִפְּנֵי יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ. לֹא נָשׁוּב אֶל בָּתֵּינוּ עַד הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ נַחֲלָתוֹ.” “…And they said, ‘We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves quickly before the children of Yisrael until we have brought them to their place. Our children will reside in the fortified cities in account of the inhabitants of the land. We shall not return to out homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.” (32:16-18). It’s not that they didn’t want to go into Eretz Yisrael or that they were afraid of participating in the war, they were simply being practical. They knew they would need extra space for their considerable flocks, so they asked to be able to set up a place for them before the conquering of the land, and they would stay there even after.
Even with this explanation, Moshe still was not happy. He made them swear that they would take place in the war equally with the rest of the nation, wait until everyone else was settled in their portions, and only then return home. Why the seeming animosity from Moshe? Once he understands that Reuven and Gad were not afraid to enter Eretz Yisrael, why didn’t he trust them to fulfill their promise?
Based on an explanation from the Kli Yakar, we can contrive an answer to this question.
When the pasuk explains the amount of animals the two tribes had, it uses an unusual language. “וּמִקְנֶה | רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי גָד עָצוּם מְאֹד” “The descendants of Reuven and Gad had an abundance of livestock, very numerous” (32:1). While it doesn’t appear strange in English translation, in the original Hebrew, there are two terms used to describe the amount of livestock, “רַב”, “many”, and “עָצוּם מְאֹד”, “very strong”. Additionally, these terms are listed in different parts of the pasuk. If these two phrases mean basically the same thing, why do we need both and why are they not written next to each other?
The Kli Yakar explains that each term is supposed to be used separately. The term “many” is used to describe the flocks of Reuven; they were the ones with the massive amount of animals. Gad’s flocks are referred to as “very strong”, because they were particularly fierce. In fact, the gemarah says that they did not need outside protection from wolves because they could defend themselves.
When the tribes came to Moshe with their second proposal, they told him that they would build places for their animals and only then would they build cities for their children (See pasuk16); Moshe told them they should do it the opposite way, building the places for their families and then their animals. Based on this explanation of the Kli Yakar, we can understand their thought process. Because of the ferocity of their animals, the tribes believed it would be better to set them up as “watchsheep” for their families. Therefore, it was necessary to set up places for them before they set up anything permanent for the women and children.
However, Moshe was still not happy since this was the wrong way to handle this. These two tribes needed to believe that Hashem was going to take care of them no matter what. More than that, since Reuven and Gad had seemingly found their place of comfort and were ready to settle down with no other issues, the other tribes were looking at these two to see what they would do. Therefore, Moshe told them to first build cities for their children; that they should show the other tribes that they trusted in Hashem to keep their families safe from harm, even when they already had a good guard system available. This attitude then trickled down to the rest of the people. With this attitude in place, the nation was ready to enter Eretz Yisrael.
Chazak Chazak V’Nischazek!
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