Mattos-Masei 5777

Settling for less[1]

ויאמרו אם-מצאנו חן בעיניך יתן את-הארץ הזאת לעבדיך לאחזה אל-תעברנו את-הירדן
They said [to Moshe]: “If we have found favor in your eyes, this land will be given to your servants as an inheritance; [therefore] we will not cross the Jordan River”[2]

As the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, as well as half the tribe of Menashe, made a request to Moshe. They had just conquered the land known as “Arvos Moav”, which was on the other side of the Jordan River. Officially it was now Jewish land. However, it wasn’t part of the land of Israel proper. These tribes noticed that this area was great for grazing, and they had a lot of flock to feed. They asked if they could settle there, and not cross the Jordan River with their brothers. After some debate back and forth, Moshe agreed to their request. In the end, was this request proper?

Chazal seem to reprimand these tribes for making this request. When the Ten Tribes were exiled from Israel, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe were exiled eight[3] years earlier. Chazal consider this punishment for separating themselves from the rest of their brothers[4]. All of this happened despite having good intentions. The tribe of Gad wanted to dwell in the area that Moshe would be buried in[5]. They hoped it would have a spiritual influence on them; a sort of protection. The tribe of Reuven intended to distance themselves from stealing[6]. By having a large flock, it would have been hard to control where their animals grazed. They might have grazed in other people’s lands, causing the owners a financial loss. Therefore, they felt it would be better to be separate from everyone else. Regardless of their good intentions, they were still punished. Chazal felt they shouldn’t have separated themselves from their brethren.

There’s a related yet very terse midrash[7] in parshas Vayeitzei. It first quotes the verse[8]: “Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest and found duda’im (a type of flower) in the field and brought them to his mother Leah”. The midrash subsequently quotes the verse in Proverbs[9]: “Teach a child according to his way, [then] even in his old age he will not sway from it”. Then the midrash quotes the verse from this week’s parsha[10]: “this land will be given to your servants”. That’s all the midrash says, no further explanation. The midrash seems to be teaching us how Reuven acted was a lesson for his descendants. Some explain[11] that Reuven went out specifically in the season of the wheat harvest, since all the flowers in the field at that time were ownerless. He didn’t want to steal from anybody; this way he was able to bring flowers to his mother. Since he distanced himself from theft, this trait became inherent in his descendants. Therefore, the tribe of Reuven wanted to settle on the other side of the Jordan, also to avoid stealing from others.

This explanation is a praise of the tribe of Reuven. Rashi[12] however has a different explanation. The midrash is teaching us that the same way Reuven took the duda’im, the tribe of Reuven took the land in Arvos Moav. Reuven took something that was easily accessible, since the flowers were in an open field. Consequently, the tribe of Reuven took the land in Arvos Moav, since it had already been conquered by the Jews. They took it, even though the land of Israel was of better quality. This seems to be a criticism of the tribe of Reuven[13]. Reuven could have taken nicer, more valuable flowers. Instead he took common flowers, free of charge. He felt it was good enough. So too with the tribe of Reuven, they were satisfied with less.

It’s true that Chazal emphasize it’s important to be satisfied with one’s lot[14]. However, that’s only true regarding physical needs. Spiritually, a person should never feel satisfied with their lot.[15] Satisfaction means a lack of ambition. Without any ambitions, how can a person accomplish anything great? The tribe of Reuven could have had ambitions to have a piece of the holiest place on earth, the land of Israel. Instead, they were satisfied with less. A person can always do more. A person should always want more. They just have to never be satisfied with their lot.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Elimelech Reznick on parshas Mattos in 5774

[2] Numbers 32:5. The preceding three verses opened with these tribes pointing out to Moshe that they had a large flock and the land was great for grazing. Immediately following these verses is a stumah, a paragraph break, followed by their request for the land. Rav Chaim Kanievsky in Ta’amah D’Krah asks: why is there a break in the middle of the story? They were mid-sentence in their request! He answers based on the Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:10 and the Mishnah Rishonah ad. loc. that only land in Israel given, as opposed to land requested, is obligated in the mitzvah of bikkurim. Since they asked for the land, they can’t bring bikkurim. If it had been given to them without asking they could have brought it. Rav Chaim Kanievsky explains that they wanted to be able to bring bikkurim, therefore they didn’t ask for the land outright. They first hinted to Moshe that he should give it to them by mentioning the size of their flock. Since Moshe didn’t respond as desired, they had no choice but to explicitly ask. This explains the paragraph break: it hints to the pause they made before their actual request

[3] See Ba’al HaTurim to Numbers 32:1 who points out that the phrase בני גד ובני ראובן appears eight times in this parsha, hinting to the eight years that they were exiled earlier than their brothers

[4] Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7; Eichah Rabbah Pesikta § 5 Midrash Tanchuma Mattos § 5; Tanchuma Yashan Mattos § 8. However, it’s noteworthy that these midrashim don’t specify how many years they were exiled before the rest of the tribes. See Rashi to Isaiah 8:23

[5] Rashi to Deuteronomy 33:21

[6] Koheles Rabbah 3:10. As well, see note 7 and note 11

[7] Bereishis Rabbah 72:1

[8] Genesis 30:14

[9] 22:6

[10] Numbers 32:5

[11] Chiddushei Radal. The midrash in paragraph 2 actually says explicitly that Reuven tried to avoid stealing. Therefore, the Radal emends this midrash to be part of that paragraph, as it seems out of place where it is

[12] Ad. loc. There seems to only be a commentary attributed to Rashi on Bereishis Rabbah, not the other books of Midrash Rabbah

[13] This explanation also means the midrash isn’t out of place where it is

[14] Avos 4:1

[15] I’ve heard Rabbi Reznick say this many times, I believe quoting Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz