The Real Me

The members of Reuven and Gad had an abundance of livestock very numerous and they saw the land of Yazer and the land of Gilad, and behold, the place was a place for livestock.  (Sefer Bamidbar 32:1)

I. Reuven and Gad’s dialogue with Moshe

The closing portion of Parshat Matot describes the circumstances leading to two and a half shevatim – tribes – settling on the eastern side of the Jordan.  Bnai Yisrael captured these territories in battles that they did not seek or initiate.  They had asked Sichon, one of the territories’ rulers, to allow them passage through his kingdom on their march to the Land of Canaan.  Rather than acquiescing, Sichon attacked Bnai Yisrael.  He was defeated and his lands captured.  This defeat did not deter the other local ruler – Og – from attacking.  He too was defeated and his lands were taken.  The capture of these territories did not immediately alter the nation’s plan to continue to the Land of Canaan, capture it, and for all the tribes to settle in it.

This plan was challenged by the shevatim of Reuven and Gad.  These tribes possessed huge flocks.  The lands of Sichon and Og were ideal for grazing. Reuven and Gad suggested to Moshe that they take possession of these lands in place of their portions in the Land of Canaan on the western side of the Jordan.

Moshe reacted negatively.  He offered a number of objections. Among these was concern that the behavior of these shevatim would undermine the other tribes’ determination to capture the Land of Canaan.  They would interpret the behaviors of Reuven and Gad as motivated by fear.  This perceived fear would provoke widespread insecurity and the nation would refuse to engage in the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  Once again, the nation would be punished by Hashem for its lack of faith in His providence.

The shevatim of Gad and Reuven then reached an agreement with Moshe.  They will settle their families in the territories east of the Jordan.  Then, they will lead the nation in the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  Only after all the tribes have settled in their respective lands, will they return to their own lands and families east of the Jordan.

Moshe formalizes this proposal.  If the tribes of Reuven and Gad fulfill their commitment to the other tribes, then they will receive their portions in the territories east of the Jordan.  However, if they do not follow-through on their commitment, then they will not receive their portions east of the Jordan but will settle with their brethren west of the Jordan.  Reuven and Gad accepted this agreement.


And Moshe said to the members of Gad and the members of Reuven: Will your brothers engage in war and you will dwell here? (Sefer Bamidbar 32:6)

III. Moshe Questions the Ethics of Reuven and Gad

This is an outline of the incident.  However, closer scrutiny of the passages reveals a number of crucial ambiguities in the narrative.  The first is expressed in the above passage.  The passage describes the first of Moshe’s objections to Reuven and Gad’s proposal.  What is his objection?  According to Don Isaac Abravanel, Moshe was objecting that their proposal was unjust.  They were asking to settle in lands captured through battles waged by all the tribes.  Yet, they were suggesting that they should not be required to reciprocate and join with the nation in the conquest of the territories that would be the apportioned to the other shevatim.[1]

Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno disagrees.  He understands Moshe’s words as rhetorical.  He was saying, “How is it possible that you think that your brothers will agree to this ridiculous suggestion!”

The difference between these two interpretations is substantial.  If Moshe was voicing an objection – as suggested by Abravanel, then Moshe understood that Reuven and Gad were indeed suggesting that they remain in the territories they would possess east of the Jordan and not join with Bnai Yisrael in the capture of the Land of Canaan.

Sforno’s interpretation of Moshe words as rhetorical suggests that Moshe did not believe that Reuven and Gad intended for their absurd request to be taken seriously.  Then, why did they make the request? Moshe accused them of sinister motivations.  They know their request will be rejected.  They are making it in order to subtly communicate their fear of the nations of the Land and Canaan.  They are not seeking the territories east of the Jordan.  They are trying to discourage confronting the mighty nations west of the Jordan.[2]

How are we to understand the behavior of Reuven and Gad according to Sforno?  Is he suggesting that these shevatim plotted to undermine the conquest of the Land of Canaan?


And they approached him and they said:  We will build here corrals for our flocks and cities for our children.  And we will arm ourselves quickly before the Children of Israel until we have brought them to their place.  And our children will dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land.  (Sefer Bamidbar 32:16-17)

III.  The Tribes Respond to Moshe’s Objections

Let’s put aside this question and consider another important ambiguity that is contained in the above passages.  The tribes of Reuven and Gad explain that they will settle their families in the territories east of the Jordan and then lead the nation in the capture of the Land of Canaan.  They will not return to their lands and families until the conquest and apportioning of the land is completed.

Are the tribes clarifying their request of revising it?  The passages are ambiguous and the commentators differ on the issue.  According to Abravanel, the tribes clarified their request.  They were not seeking to opt-out of the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  In fact, they would lead the nation in its conquest.[3]  Others disagree and see in their response a revision of the shevatim’s position.  Ralbag – Gersonides – very explicitly adopts this interpretation.[4]

IV. Moshe’s insists upon a formal agreement

Which of these two interpretations fits best into the narrative?  If the tribes were revising their position, then Moshe’s insistence upon a formal agreement makes sense.  Their original proposal was to abandon their brethren and not participate in the conquest of the Land of Israel.  Moshe suspected that they were either fearful or that they did not fully appreciate the land Hashem had promised the Patriarchs.[5]  A formal agreement was necessary.  Perhaps, fear and doubt about the land will reassert themselves and, at some future moment, they will be tempted to abandon their brothers.

Moshe’s insistence upon a formal agreement is much more difficult to explain if the tribes were not revising but were clarifying their position.  They had never contemplated abandoning their brethren and not participating in the conquest!  Why did Moshe insist upon a formal agreement?

V. Moshe’s Understanding of the Position of Reuven and Gad

One possibility is that although the shevatim were clarifying their request, Moshe could not know this with certainty.  He had to consider the possibility that, embarrassed by Moshe’s criticisms, they presented their revision as clarification of their original position.

The difficulty with this answer is that it assumes that Moshe repeatedly misunderstood or was uncertain of the intentions of Reuven and Gad.  First, he assumed that they intended to exclude themselves from the capture of the Land of Canaan.  Even when they explained to Moshe that this was not their intent, he continued to suspect them.  Is it possible to explain Moshe’s behavior without assuming that he continually misinterpreted or was uncertain of Reuven and Gad’s position?

VI. Self-Knowledge and its Limitations

The answer lies in considering a fundamental issue.  How well do we understand our own motivations?  Can we be sure that our actions are performed for the reason that we believe motivates us?  Is it possible that sometimes we are motivated not by the factors of which we are aware but by much deeper considerations of which we are not completely aware?

Moshe required that Reuven and Gad formalize their commitment.  This was not because he suspected that their leaders were disingenuous and were presenting a revision as a clarification.  He accepted their sincerity.  They were seeking grazing lands for their flocks and they never intended to excuse themselves from participating in the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  However, he also recognized that it is difficult for us to be fully aware of our motivations.

Reuven and Gad explained that they wished to settle east of the Jordan because the land was perfect for grazing their flocks.  But Moshe understood that we are not always fully aware of our true motives.  If deep within the recesses of their unconscious they questioned whether the land could be conquered, this doubt might be the true motivation for their request.  In other words, Moshe feared that they asked to settle in the lands east of the Jordan because, unconsciously, they harbored doubts about the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  At some point, in the future, these doubts may reassert themselves.  Will Reuven and Gad remain committed to participating in the conquest of the land even if they encounter discouraging set-backs?  Moshe concluded that a formal agreement was the best assurance that Reuven and Gad would remain steadfast.

Let us return to Sforno’s comments.  Sforno is not necessarily suggesting that Reuven and Gad plotted to undermine the conquest of the Land of Canaan.  He is not denying the sincerity of their request. They asked to settle in east of the Jordan because they believed these lands were best suited for their flocks.  But Moshe immediately recognized a deeper unconscious motive.  They feared that the Land of Canaan could not be conquered.  How did Moshe identify this unconscious motive?  He presented to Reuven and Gad his evidence.  Their request was nonsensical.  Did they really expect the other shevatim to accept this deal?  Moshe said to them, “You are speaking nonsense!  But there is a context in which your request does make sense. You are unconsciously afraid the nations of Canaan cannot be subdued and you are trying to forestall the entire initiative!”

VII.  Judging Other’s Motives

Moshe teaches us two important lessons.  First, we should not be certain that we fully understand our motives. Instead, we must act properly but humbly.  We believe that our acts of righteousness and kindness are motivated by authentic virtue but we must be humble and recognize that we cannot be certain of our true motivation.

Second, when we recognize the innate uncertainly of our motivations, we can give credit to others for their acts of righteousness and kindness despite suspicions regarding their motives.  We should applaud those who act properly and not be overly concerned with their motivation.  We can rarely be certain that our own motives are pure.  Yet, we try to act properly.  We should appreciate others who act properly despite our skepticism of their motives.

[1] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BaMidbar (Chorev Publishing House, Jerusalem 5768), p 266.

[2] Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar, 32:6-7. See notes of Rav Yehuda Cooperman.

[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BaMidbar (Chorev Publishing House, Jerusalem 5768), p 267.  Abravanel’s position is not completely clear.  It is possible that he means that they presented a new position as if they were only clarifying their original position.  In fact, they were revising their position in response to Moshe’s objections.  See comments of Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shor who seems to interpret the shevatim’s  response as a clarification of their original request.

[4] Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gersonides), Commentary on Sefer BaMidbar, (Ma’aliot Publishing, Ma’ale Adumim, 5769), p 417.

[5] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BaMidbar (Chorev Publishing House, Jerusalem 5768), p 266.