To Listen and to Discern

Masei Mattot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 3, 2013 / 5773

Parashat Mattot,the first of the two parashiyot this week, opens and closes with the idea of meaningful and thoughtful communication. At the beginning of the parashah, Moses speaks to the leaders of the tribes, warning them to fulfill their promises. Once a vow is uttered, especially before the people, it is the responsibility of the leader to fulfill that vow. The message is certainly not lost on our modern ears, as we are vividly reminded of ubiquitous campaign promises spewed by candidates running for political office. All too often, vows sadly remain unfulfilled. Moreover, Mattot closes with a curious exchange between Moses and two tribes. The Reubenites and Gadites request that they be granted territory in the Transjordan. Given their wealth of cattle, these tribes argue that the land of Transjordan is most suitable for grazing. Angrily, Moses responds to their request, “And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to the Lord’s wrath against Israel. If you turn away and God abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people” (Num. 32:14–15). Moreover, he accuses them of abandoning their brethren at the time of greatest need. How are we to understand the Reubenite and Gadite request as well as Moses’s heated response?

Joseph B’khor Shor, a medieval commentator from Orleans, makes a valuable point. He writes,

Moses responded in this way because they [the Gadites and the Reubenites] said “do not move us across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:5). Moses reasoned that they did not want to cross over for fear of war. But they responded, “We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops (halutzim), at the instance of the Lord, into the Land of Canaan; and we will keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:31–32). In other words, they said that they will go first as it says in Joshua 6:13, “the vanguard (he-halutz) marched in front of them.” Just as we took the first territorial possession, so too will we be the first to go to war.

Moses, however, focused on the words, “do not move us across the Jordan” (Num. 32:5). This led to a tragic misunderstanding. It is for this reason that the B’khor Shor underscores the use of the word halutzim,meaning pioneers or vanguard. The Reubenites and Gadites promise Moses that they will serve as “shock troops,” and that once the Israelite mission is accomplished, they will return to the lands of Yazer and Gilead (the Transjordan).

This exchange is pregnant with meaning. Before hearing the entire argument of these two tribes, Moses jumps to an unwarranted conclusion. Granted, Moses is undoubtedly exhausted from the many trials he has faced in the desert—the Golden Calf, Korah, the waters of Merivah, and Ba’al Peor, just to name a few. Past expectations and experience compel Moses to expect the worst. And for their part, the Reubenites and Gadites are not sensitive enough to the fragility and exhaustion of Moses. If they had immediately expressed their desire to fight on behalf of their fellow Israelites, rather than saying, “do not move us across the Jordan,” perhaps Moses would have acquiesced immediately. Parashat Mattot and the B’khor Shor encourage us to communicate in more thoughtful and intentional ways. By becoming more deliberate in speech, we can journey together toward the Promised Land more fruitfully and constructively.

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