by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – July 17, 2014
Towards the end of the Torah section of Matot, we read of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approaching Moses to request that they be allowed to settle the land on the other side of the Jordan River rather than settle the Land of Israel along with all the other tribes. After initially being reprimanded for what appeared to be their forsaking the Land of Israel and their brethren, they assure Moses that they do not intend to forsake their brethren in any way. They only choose to stay in this land because of the great number of livestock in their possession that requires this sort of land for their livestock to thrive. The tribes of Reuven and Gad inform Moses (Bamidbar 32:16 – 17), “Enclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children. We shall arm ourselves swiftly before the Children of Israel until we will have brought them to their place and our children will dwell in the fortified cities in face of the inhabitants of the land.” Moses responds (Bamidbar 32:20 – 24), “If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before G-d for the battle. And every armed man among you shall cross the Jordan before G-d until He drives out His enemies before Him. And the Land shall be conquered before G-d and then shall you return, then shall you be vindicated from G-d and from Israel and this land shall be a heritage for you before G-d….Build for yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your penning and what has come from your mouth shall you do.”
In Ma’ayana shel Torah, on the aforementioned verses, an intriguing thought is cited from a work called Gan Rave: One may note that, when they originally suggest their idea to Moses, the tribes of Reuven and Gad express their intention to have their children “dwell in fortified cities” while they accompany their brethren in battle, whereas when Moses reiterates their plan, he only mentions building “cities for your children” and omits the mention of their being fortified. The reason for this is that the construction of fortified cities could diminish the people’s sense of security vis a vis G-d in that they would tend to rely on these fortifications rather than raising their eyes to G-d and leaning on Him, so to speak, for their security. When our physical surroundings are very “fortified,” we tend to become too complacent and look less to G-d.
Such a concept of looking less towards G-d as a result of improved physical surroundings can be traced back as far as the beginning of mankind. We are told (Bereshit 2:8 – 10), “And the L-rd G-d planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed. And the L-rd G-d caused to grow from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food…And a river issues forth from Eden to water the garden.” G-d provides the first man with the most blissful and serene physical surroundings that can be imagined – a veritable utopia. What happens afterwards is man’s being lulled into complacency whereby G-d’s one prohibition of refraining from eating of the Tree of Good and Evil does not weigh heavily enough on Adam and Eve and they transgress this one prohibition. Seeing the detrimental effects of man’s surroundings being too blissful, G-d sees no choice but to remove Adam and Eve from this utopia so that they and their descendants should better be able to recognize the Hand of G-d in their lives and not be lulled into complacency by utopian surroundings.
This concept also seems to be alluded to in G-d’s choosing the Land of Israel for the people of Israel to settle. With regards to the Land of Israel, we read (Devarim 11:11), “By the rain of the heavens it drinks water.” The Land of Israel is dependent on rain – something that is not readily available to us. Rain comes from above and is not under our control. To receive the necessary amount of rain for our crops and other needs, the inhabitants of this land are encouraged to look to G-d for His assistance (see Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShana 17b). On the other hand, the inhabitants of the land of Egypt that our ancestors escaped looked to the ever-present Nile for their water to the point even of deifying it. The more our physical surroundings are “set”, the more we have a tendency to become complacent and think less of our dependence on G-d and His benevolence.
Our Torah section teaches us that we must continually look to G-d and not allow “fortified cities” to distract us. We must not become complacent by our pleasant physical surroundings whereby we lose sight of G-d and what He expects of us. This can only lead to trouble for us. If we turn away from G-d, we are told (Devarim 11:17), “He will restrain the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land that G-d gives you.” Only if we look to G-d and abide by His wishes, can we expect G-d to fully look to us – positively. In the Torah, we read (Devarim 11:13 – 15), “And it will be that if listening, you will listen to My commandments that I command you today, to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul. Then I shall provide the rain of your land in its time, the early rain and the late rain and you shall bring in your grain, your wine and your oil. I shall provide grass in your field for your animal and you will eat and you will be satisfied.” G-d wishes to provide for our needs but we must look to Him and turn our attention to him “with all your heart and with all your soul” – no room for complacency towards G-d. Look to G-d and He promises to look to you.