Reuven, Gad and the Three Weeks

Insights into People in the Torah: Torah Portion of Mattot-Maasei Numbers 30:2–36:13: .

 Exile can be an alluring and exotic seduction.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism Israel-Jordan border
Israel-Jordan border
צילום: PR

The Torah portion of Mattot describes the importance of vows and of words. It then declares war on the divisiveness personified by Midian's seduction .Yet at the end of the portion  we are confronted with the dramatic  request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad.

The people of Reuven and Gad have been very successful during their sojourn in the wilderness and they have amassed large flocks of sheep and possessions.  These two tribes, see that the land found east of the Jordan river is perfectly suited as pasture for their large herds. They approach Moshe and ask to have permission to settle there, rather than cross the Jordan. They turned to Moshe and said :

"If we have found favor in your eyes, then let this land be given to your servants as an inheritance, and do not cause us to pass over the River Yarden" (Numbers 32:1-5).


Moshe is understandably angry and says  “Shall your fellow countrymen go to war while you sit here?” Did they not realize the demoralizing effect of their words can bring about disaster ,as it did with the “evil report of the spies”?

They answered Moshe with the following words ;

 "...we shall build sheep pens for our flocks and towns for our children.  We shall quickly proceed at the vanguard of Israel until we have brought them to their place, while our children remain in the fortified towns because of this land's inhabitants. .. But we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Yarden, because our inheritance is rather to be on its eastern side" (ibid 32:16-19).

Moshe points to two major flaws in their thinking. First he explains the order by which the land is to be inherited;  “If you go to battle and help your brethren conquer the land then ... you may return, and you shall be freed [of your obligation] from Hashem and from Israel, and this land will become your heritage before Hashem." ( ibid 32:22)

He also reminds them about priorities in their lives. They declared to Moshe "we shall build sheep pens for our flocks and towns for our children  ".  Moshe corrects their vision with the following words" So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep, and what has proceeded from your mouth you shall do.". Get your priorities right, it is first about your children and only later about your sheep and possessions.

The renowned Tanach teacher and leader, Rav Channan Porat Z"l pointed out that they understood his criticism regarding the children but miss the point of the inheritance of the land. As regarding the children they eventually understand the order of importance as we see in their subsequent words " Our children and our wives, our livestock and our cattle will remain there, in the cities of Gilead." ( ibid ;26).

Yet as to the land they respond; . "We shall do as Hashem has spoken to your servants.. We shall cross over in an armed …, and with us we have  the possession of our inheritance on this side of the Jordan."( ibid: 31-32)

They wanted possession of this rich and abundant land right now, rather than the land G-d promised them. The ever present sin of "the lure of shortcuts" distorted their vision. They wanted a resource rich “Uganda”now  rather than the more challenging  land of Israel. That was and continues to be the trap of “the lands of the exile”


 Exile can be an alluring and exotic seduction.

On the one hand in exile we were seen negatively as  “an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples whither Hashem shall lead thee away” (Deuteronomy 28: 37).


On  the other hand we are told that “ There you will worship man-made G-ds of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.(Deuteronomy 4:28).   All this because “You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold ( Deuteronomy 29:17).


Gold and silver, sheep and worldly possessions has the potential to  lure mortals away from their purpose and away from their destiny. That is the seduction of “exile amongst the nations”.

We see the same crisis affecting Yaacov our forefather in his sojourn in exile.

In the midst of Jacob's running away from Esau he sees the vision of the ladder to the heavens in a dream. In this vision he is promised by G-d , great things. When he returns from the land of Laban we read; ". So Jacob rose (vaYakam) , and he lifted up his sons and his wives upon the camels." (ibid 31:17) This event is also heralded by a dream.  

Yet in Haran, it was a very different sort of dream.

"And it came to pass at the time the animals came into heat, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he goats that mounted the animals were ringed, speckled, and striped."( Genesis 31:10)

 As opposed to the spiritual dream of angels that he dreamt of while still in the land, here Jacob dreams about physical goats and material acquisitions. The materialistic seduction of Chutz LeAretz- Exile - seems to have begun to affect Jacob as well.

He then understands that he needs to leave.

Reuven and Gad miss that point, as do countless generations after them still stuck in exile. We are in the midst of the three weeks commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of that exile. We are still in the midst of this mourning because the lure of physical gratification and achievement has dulled our yearning for Hashem’s Temple and His redemption.

May we grow out of the sadness of these three weeks and garner the inner knowledge and the courage to yearn for much more. 

This is what Hashem  Almighty says: "The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace." ( Zechariah 8:19)


LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Esther