When Israel was to go into the land of Caanan, they were to drive out all the inhabitants of the land (Num 33:50-56). They were to destroy them completely. This, to our modern ears, seems rather harsh. Al those poor, innocent men, women and children, driven from their homes, slaughtered unmercifully. What kind of a loving G-d is this we are claiming? Passages like these have been a stumbling block for many through the years.
But there is a very important reason for these commands. G-d states that if the Israelites leave them in the land to dwell among them, they will be barbs in their eyes and thorns in their sides. It will make the community of Israel ineffective in their mission. It will hamper one of the primary purposes of the community itself, the role of encouraging one another in righteousness. When G-d decided to build the people of Israel, He departed form the the pattern that had been used up to that point. Before Avraham (and including him), righteous men were extraordinary because they went against the tide, they bucked the trend. Men like Noach, Enoch, Seth and Avraham were individuals with the strength and the fortitude necessary to separate themselves from their contemporaries and live for G-d. It is an unusual trait among men and women, the desire to truly stand out in a crowd, and we can see by the few men who actually did it, how rare it is.
The vision for the community of Israel was different. No longer would it be a ‘lone voice’, a single man standing up for righteousness. G-d was going to create a community, a whole nation, and give them instruction on how to live righteously, so they would encourage one another to do so. Righteousness, and not wickedness, would be the norm among these people. If they wanted to buck the trend, they would be wicked, because everyone around them would be righteous. Just like it is easier to keep Shabbat in Israel because all the stores are closed, instead of here in the US where the temptation is always present. It would be easier to be righteous, because everyone would be trying to be righteous within their land and they would be able to demonstrate to the rest of the world what the people of G-d truly look like.
If they left the caananites in the land, the whole plan would be put into jeopardy. There would be wicked idolaters among them, giving then an alternative ‘norm’. They would be a barb in their eyes, their vision would be hampered, they would not be able to see G-d and His ways clearly because their eyes would be distracted, their eye would not be ‘single’. They would be a thorn in Israel's side, their obedience to the mitzvot would be hampered, their actions would not be as smooth and easy as before. And we see, in Israel’s history, that this is exactly what happened.
We need to learn this lesson. We need to eliminate the distractions in our lives so we are single minded in our vision and action, not turning to the right or left. We need to encourage one another to righteousness because none of us, even those of you in Israel, live in a righteous, Torah obedient society. Therefore, we need to be stronger and we need to bear one another's burdens, helping one another under the pressures of the world around us. That is what our communities are for. We need to put top priority upon building those comminutes so we can all be the people G-d desires us to be.
A final crisis looms just before they are going into the land. The census has been taken, all the men of the previous generation are gone and Moshe is standing with the new generation on the east side of the Jordan river, about to finally take possession of Avraham’s inheritance. The had won a decisive battle against Midian, they were ready to go up and poses the land. And then representatives of the tribes of Reuven and Gad come to Moshe and tell him they don’t want to go in. They argued that they have abundant livestock and that the land they are in on the east side of the Jordan is their land of milk and honey.
Moshe is incensed. They want to stay here in land already conquered while their brethren go into the Land and fight and bleed with two tribes missing. He was worried that they would discourage the rest of the nation as the spies did a generation earlier. G-d’s wrath would fall upon the whole community and they would be kept out of the land for another forty years.
Reuven and Gad continue their argument and demonstrate their priorities and reasons are less than noble. They volunteer to send their men into the land after building pens for their livestock and houses for their children. First of all they had their priorities wrong. They put construction of the enclosures for their livestock ahead of their wives and children. Moshe corrected them in his response, putting things in proper order. But what about their wives and children. All the able-bodied men would be heading off to war and be gone for who knows how long. Who was going to protect all these defenseless people? What were they thinking?
Moshe wonders what their real motivation may be but he allows it on the condition that they do what they say. He says "if you do this thing.....then you shall be vindicated from YHVH and Israel and this land will be a heritage for you before YHVH". That word ‘vindicated’ is ‘naqi’ which is clean, free of, innocent, exempt. In a sense, their going into the land with the rest of Israel is their trial and if their fulfill their obligation, they will be cleared, not just of their obligation before G-d but before their brethren. The beginning of this parasha dealt with the taking of oaths and the importance of doing that which you said you were going to do. This obligation applies not only to G-d but to our fellow man.
Our actions are not only performed for G-d but for our fellow. When we make oaths or promises to G-d we also do them in this world and they involve other people. When we fulfill our obligations, we do not do them only to G-d, we do not just technically fulfill what we think are our obligations. We also have an obligation to fulfill our obligations to our fellow man. The tribes of Reuven and Gad would remove their ‘guilt’ before the other tribes by fulfilling their obligation. We need to fulfill our vows and obligations in a way that satisfies the people they affect as well as the G-d to whom they were made.
This parasha contains another crisis for Moshe and Israel. They are soon going to enter the land, their time of wandering is nearly up. Joshua is ready to lead them. They have won several victories already and confidence, a necessity for an army, is high. Then, the tribes of Re’uven and Gad come to Moshe and request the land on which they are standing, rather than that in the land of Canaan where everyone else is going. It was more suitable to their economic situation. Moshe’s response is harsh. He tells them that their fathers refused to go into the land and they had been paying for it ever since. He so much as called them traitors to their brothers, taking the easy way out. Only after agreeing to help with the conquest did Moshe agree to let them have the land. So what was the problem and the consequences of the decision?
Moshe knew exactly what the problem was and it is a problem that plagues us as well. The problem was Re’uven and Gad’s fixation on their wealth over and above anything else. They had abundant livestock, the measure of wealth, particularly for a nomadic people such as Israel, and it was the maintenance of this wealth which concerned them. They did not want to risk it in a war. This wealth even took precedence over their wives and children. Notice they agree to first, make pens for their livestock and then, houses for their families. The men are even willing to leave their familles for an extended period of time during the conquest in order to keep their wealth intact. They were risking their families, unity with the other tribes and the national mission because they desired to preserve their wealth. Did it work? Moshe agreed, yes, but they were cut off from the life of Israel. There are no significant leaders that emerge from these tribes, nothing noteworthy they acomplish. They are the first to go into exile.
Western people are like Re’uven and Gad. The preservation of our wealth, our stuff, our things, are more important to us than unity or risk for reward or even our families. How many parents work two full time jobs, leaving their children to raise themselves, in order to have the big house in the suburbs, the new cars, the possessions. How many people allow their careers to take them from their families for extended periods of time so they can keep their jobs and their lifestyle. How many of us need the comfort of home and the security it and our possessions give us. We are no longer free to do what we want when we want, we are not free to develop unity and community, relationships or show hospitality because we are slaves to our lifestyle and possessions. We don’t have time because we are working so hard to keep what we have that, as Re’uven and Gad found out, all that is left is a non-descript life, void of any real accomplishment or experience, and then it is over. As they say, on their deathbed no one ever wished they had spent more time at the office...
People that make significant contributions in this world, who live life to the fullest, who have the time for real relationships, who go and do remarkable things, are not encumbered by things or stuff. To us, they seem to be giving up basic necessities and the security that things provide us but to the man or woman who has found greater value in life and activity, there is no sacrifice. It is a different lifestyle. As Jeff and I make preparations to embark on a nomadic lifestyle, he on land and I on the water, people are mystified. Where will we get jobs, what about pirates on the ocean, what about cells phones, e-mail, what will you eat and how will you cook it? It is almost as if we are going to mars. But we will be living. We will have the time to develop relationships, we will constantly be seeing new places and coming in contact with different people and cultures. We will be developing the spiritual in a way that only a nomadic lifestyle can do. We will not be encumbered by things, we will only have that which we an easily move with us. Re’uven and Gad had wealth, they had things, but they were stagnant. Most of us are stagnant. Because our lives are so insignificant we spend our time in pettiness whether it is office gossip or nitpicking theological chats on the Internet. We have to create significant events or live them vicariously through entertainment because our lives are basically boring and insignificant. If we free ourselves from such a life, if we begin to live and experience, then we will live the life of Avraham and Moshe and David and the prophets and not of Re’uven and Gad.
Chazak, Chazak, Venischazeik!
Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened