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The Rashness of the Tribes of Gad and Reuven

Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )


In this week’s Torah Portion, the Tribes of Gad approach Moshe, asking that he allow them to remain in the Jordan Valley, outside of the land of Israel, where there is sufficient land for them to farm their large flocks. Moshe replies with a strong rebuke – his main point of criticism was that by not entering the land of Israel they would be abandoning their brethren in the upcoming conquest. In a lengthy passage, Moshe ominously reminds them of the incident of the spies and its terrible consequences. In reply to Moshe’s criticisms, the Tribes of Gad and Reuven say that they would join the rest of the nation in conquering the land. The Sages add that Moshe also implicitly rebuked them for mentioning their flocks before their children, indicating that their priorities were wrong, and that they should first focus on their children, and only then worry about their flocks.

The Midrash also points out that many years later, the Tribes of Gad and Reuven were the first to be exiled as a consequence of their desire to stay in the Jordan Valley1, and cites a verse in Proverbs: “A rushed inheritance comes first, and its end is not blessed2.” Rashi3 explains that this verse refers to the Tribes of Gad and Reuven because they acted rashly by hurrying to take the land of the Jordan valley first, and as a result of their rashness they ended up being the first to be exiled. Hence, the verse means that because their beginning was rushed, the final consequences of their actions were negative.

Thus, we learn, that as well as their wrong priorities with regard to their children and flocks, the Tribes of Gad and Reuven were also hindered by the trait of rashness. This trait is demonstrated in Reuven himself in the incident in Vayishlach, where he disturbed Yaakov’s bed4. When blessing his sons, Yaakov reproves him for his trait of impetuosity and rashness that were the root cause of his actions. In addition, Yaakov stripped Reuven of the three privileges that go to the first-born – the Kingship, Priesthood, and double portion of the first-born.

The Shivtei Yisrael5 observes a common denominator between the tribes of Gad and Reuven.6 He points out that they are both first-borns from their respective mothers, and notes that first-borns are perhaps more prone to the trait of rashness, because of their status. First-borns are used to receiving things first, and therefore may find it difficult to wait. He suggests that it was this shared trait that led to these tribes in particular to react the way they did when they saw the Jordan Valley. The other tribes were willing to wait and see the wonderful land that awaited them on the other side of the Jordan river. But the Tribes of Gad and Reuven saw good grazing land and said, "Let's grab it!" Chazal were critical of this attitude.

The Shivtei Yisrael proposes further that the impetuousness of these tribes cost them an annual Mitzva. The Mishnah teaches that one may not bring bikkurim (first fruit) from the Jordan Valley. The Mei Shiloach teaches that the significance of the first fruit is that a farmer spends his entire year working his field, waiting for his fruit to start growing. When they finally do start to appear on the trees, the farmer might be tempted to rush out to the field and grab them. The Torah tells him, that the first fruit must be given to the Kohen, and he has to wait before he can take the fruit for himself. Hence, part of the message of the bikkurim, then, is to learn to be patient. Perhaps, write the Shivtei Yisrael, those on the Jordan Valley were not allowed to bring bikkurim because the trait that placed them there was the impatience that bikkurim is meant to counteract.

Interestingly, one of the more maligned characters in the Torah can teach us a lesson about the importance of patience and avoiding rash decisions. Korach is described by the Sages as a pikayach7 (smart person) and Rabbi Yissachar Frand suggests a source for this particular adjective. When analyzing the story of Korach, a difficulty emerges: The Rabbis tell us that the real reason that Korach embarked on his dispute with Moshe was that he was upset when Elsiphan ben Uziel was appointed the Nasi of the Tribe of Levi ahead of him, even though Korach was from an older family8. However, this took place significantly earlier than when Korach actually began to attack Moshe. Why did he wait until now? The answer is that Korach realized that it would be very difficult to incite the people against Moshe and he recognized that he would have much more chance of success if the people were already somewhat discontented. This indeed occurred after the episode of the spies, when the people were decreed forty years in the desert. Korach saw that then the time was ripe to sow discord with Moshe. This is why he was a ‘smart person’ – a smart person does not rush into his decisions, rather he chooses the optimum time when he is most likely to succeed9. Sadly, Korach’s smartness was used in the wrong way, but this does not take away from the example it can provide, and it contrasts with the rushed decision of the Tribes of Gad and Reuven.

May we merit to develop the traits of patience.

  1. Midrash Tanchuma, Mattos, 5.
  2. Proverbs, 20:21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See Vayishlach, 35:22 for the account of this incident.
  5. Quoted by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  6. This also applies to the third Tribe of Menashe, half of whom settled in the Jordan Valley. The Ramban states that they initially the whole land was given to the Tribes Gad and Reuven but they realized that it was too large for them, so half of the Tribe of Menashe chose to remain there.
  7. Rashi, Bamidbar, 16:7, Dh: Rav lachem.
  8. Rashi, Bamidbar, 16:1, Dh: Dassan v’Aviram.
  9. Heard from Rav Yissachar Frand, shlit’a.


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