2005This week's parsha begins with Moshe instructing the Israelites regarding the seriousness of oath-taking and oath-breaking. While the legal details concerning swearing offer much insight into the status of women in antiquity, the majority of the parsha concerns complex intertribal dynamics during b'nei Yisrael's (the children of Israel's) continued advancement toward the Promised Land and its war with the Midianites. The subject of oaths, with which the parsha begins, however, helps us understand the significance of the events which conclude the unit.
A Community United?
After a group of Midianite women seduce Israelite men and cause a plague that kills 24,000 people, Moshe musters a militia of 12,000 Israelites. Soldiers representing each tribe swiftly conquer the Midianites, killing their kings and every male, including Balaam. Spoils, including people, precious metals, cattle and land, accrue to the victors and must be divided among all the tribes.
The tribes of Gad and Reuben, possessing a large quantity of cattle, make a request of Moshe:
4) "The land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle.
5) "It would be a favor to us," they continued, "if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan." (Chap. 32, Bamidbar)
Moshe rejects Gad and Reuben's selfish wish to remain behind while the other tribes fight for the Land of Israel. Gad and Reuben propose a compromise:
16) "We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.
17) "And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established from them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land.
18) "We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.
19) "But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan." (Chap. 32, Bamidbar)
Moshe agrees to this arrangement and assigns the desired territory to Gad and Reuben.
"Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:4b)
"Anyone who does not join with the community in times of trouble will never see the community consoled." (Talmud Ta'anit 11a)
Gad and Reuben's petition is curious for two reasons. First, their apparently self-centered wish to remain behind seems to ignore the larger ramifications for the entire community of b'nei Yisrael. Secondly, the focus on material goods even at the expense of human life and welfare seems reckless and even provocative.
The compromise requires Gad and Reuben to commit to an oath, basically stating that they will provide military assistance to the other tribes in exchange for land east of the Jordan. The focus on the verbal oath or promise echoes the chapter at the beginning of the parsha that deals with the permanence of promises and the resulting accountability to God if they are transgressed. The context within the parsha thus serves to emphasize the importance of Gad and Reuben's promise to aid the community and protect their families.
Regarding the question of priorities, many rabbis and commentators have also noticed that Gad and Reuben value material wealth over human life. When offering their compromise to Moshe, they pledge to first "build sheepfolds for our flocks" and then "towns for our children." From Moshe's reversal of the order of these tasks prior to Gad and Reuben swearing the oath, we learn that we are obliged to value and protect human life over all else.
What does this mean for our own communities? This parsha teaches us how to prioritize our work on campus. The job of Hillel professionals is to help create and support an environment that allows students to have meaningful Jewish experiences. This means that we are obliged to do whatever it takes to sustain this community and help others before we help ourselves.
Furthermore, we are not to be like the Gad and Reuben and focus on material matters before everything else. We must not build sheepfolds for our flocks before the fortresses for our children. While personal and work issues may cloud our minds, it is important to safeguard our first priority- our community of Jewish students.
Prepared by David Bernay, Hillel campus advancement associate
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Matot at MyJewishLearning.com.