by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – July 8, 2010
In the Torah section of Masei, we read (Bamidbar 33:50-53): “And G-d spoke to Moses in the plains of Moav, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan. You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you; and you shall destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; and all their high places shall you demolish. You shall possess the land and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the land to possess it.’”
In what appears to Moses to be in contradiction to the above injunction, we read at the end of the previous Torah section of Matot (Bamidbar 32:1-5): “The children of Reuven and the children of Gad had abundant livestock – very great. They saw the land of Yazer and the land of Gilead, and behold the place was a place for livestock. The children of Gad and the children of Reuven came and said to Moses, to Elazar the priest, and to the leaders of the assembly, saying. ‘Atarot and Divon and Yazer and Nimrah and Cheshbon and Elealeh and Sevam and Nevo and Veon. The land that G-d smote before the assembly of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.’ They said, ‘If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan’.” In fact, Moses angrily retorts (Bamidbar 32:6-7): “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dissuade the heart of the children of Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given them?”
To assuage, however, Moses’ fear, the children of Gad and Reuven assert (Bamidbar 32:16-18): “Pens for the flock shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children. We shall arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of the children of Israel until we will have brought them to their place, and our small children will dwell in the fortified cities before the inhabitants of the land. We shall not return to our homes until the children of Israel will have inherited – every man his inheritance.”
Despite the apparent rapprochement between Moses and the tribes of Reuven and Gad, our Sages look down on the tribes’ request and find fault with them for it. In fact, our Sages state that it was as a result of their request that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were the first to go into exile (Bamidbar Rabbah, 22:7).
In the book Shivtei Yisrael, it is noted that there is a common denominator between the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe (half of which joined in this request to remain on the eastern bank of the Jordan). They were all first-born sons. Reuven was the first born to both his father Jacob and his mother Leah; Gad was the first born to Bilhah; and Menashe was the first born to Joseph.
First-borns tend to enjoy a special status. First borns tend to have privileges that other children do not. First born children can command respect of their younger siblings (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 103a). And for whatever the reason, there’s a tendency among them to have special skills and talents and to have extra energy and strengths.
However, as we see in Reuven, sometimes this energy becomes unbridled. It is often not correctly channeled or mis-directed. In fact, Jacob chastises his son Reuven for his “water-like impetuosity” (Bereshit 49:4). Because of Reuven’s nature – like the torrent of a raging river – he made mistakes along the way. It led to impetuousness, unbridled drive, and excessive aggressiveness – types of assertiveness that often accompany first-borns – which can cause negative results.
In fact, upon looking through Biblical narrative, we see that first-born sons did not fare particularly well. We see this with Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob; Reuven lost the right of first-born, and Menashe was surpassed by Ephraim.
The common approach of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe, was one of impetuosity and impulsiveness in their seeing good land for grazing on the eastern bank of the Jordan and, so to speak, “jumping on it”. Their financial status was more important to them than being together with their brethren on the land promised to their forefathers by none other than G-d Himself.
The book Shivtei Yisrael also notes that the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:10) states: One may not bring bikkurim [first fruits] from the Eastern bank of the Jordan. The book Shivtei Yisrael cites the book Mei Shiloach regarding the significance of the commandment of bringing the first fruits: A farmer works the whole year; finally he sees the first fruits. The natural inclination is to pounce on those first fruits. “We finally have something for all our labor!” The Torah, however, tells us to slow down. The lesson of bikkurim is patience. Your payday can wait a little longer. Do not be hasty. Do not forget to show the proper appreciation. The first fruits should go to the Master of the Universe. G-d is responsible for your having those fruits. Similarly, we do not bring bikkurim from Trans-Jordan because Trans-Jordan represents the impetuousness of the first-born, and that attribute is precisely the characteristic that the first fruits are meant to counteract.
Patience is a virtue, and impetuosity is the opposite. Only in exercising proper patience, can we achieve the necessary goals; and, as learned from the actions of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe, doing otherwise can lead in the long run to failure. May we all learn to exercise proper patience, refrain from impetuosity and show the requisite appreciation, whereby, G-d willing, we will succeed in all our endeavors.