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And we will arm ourselves and be ready (to go) ahead of the Israelites until we have brought them into their place. Meanwhile, our dependents will remain in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land.
Parashat Matot describes the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to remain on the eastern side of the River Jordan. Moshe rebuked them for this request, recalling the sin of the spies who rejected Eretz Yisrael, and the punishment meted out to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) for this sin. Reuven and Gad changed their request, though they still wished to settle east of the Jordan, they now volunteered to assist the remaining tribes in the conquest of western Eretz Yisrael.
Midrash Lekacḥ Tov explains “And we will arm ourselves and be ready (to go) ahead of the Israelites” to mean “We will quick and diligent to go to war, going diligently before the Children of Israel.” Reuven and Gad’s offer is to “arm ourselves and be ready (to go) ahead of the Israelites,” while Moshe’s response is “if you do this and arm yourselves to go to battle before the Lord´ [posuk (verse) 20].
Our questions are:
1. Why did the tribes of Reuven and Gad find it necessary to declare that they will go ahead of the Israelites? Why did they stress this point?
2. Why did Moshe change their words and say “to go to battle before the Lord?” Why did he not repeat the tribes’ wording? Did Moshe correct the tribes?
3. Why did the tribes find it necessary to declare that they would be diligent in fulfilling the mitzva of conquering the Land?
To Prevent Hurting the Morale of the Children of Israel
Ramban explains that Moshe feared that the tribes were repeating the sin of the spies, that they were afraid of the Canaanites and fearful that they would be unable to conquer the Land. Such a fear by the two tribes could negatively influence the remaining tribes, as the report of ten of Moshe’s spies influenced the entire nation (except for the tribe of Levi). Moshe was concerned that the remaining tribes would see Reuven and Gad’s remaining east of the Jordan as an expression of the tribes’ fear and this would negatively affect their morale. Thus, Reuven and Gad had to demonstrate the opposite; rather than being afraid to fight for Eretz Yisrael, they would be the vanguard, showing that they had no fear of battling the Canaanites to conquer the Land.
However, Moshe corrected the tribes of Reuven and Gad, informing them that it is not sufficient to go ahead of the Israelites to demonstrate their bravery and lack of fear; they must convey a much loftier message: that they are not afraid because the Lord fights on behalf of His nation, therefore they go before the Lord. The message for the other tribes is not simply lack of fear, but the faith that the Lord will fight the nation’s battles and drive the Canaanites out of the Land.
Diligence in Performing Mitzvot Because it is God’s Will
HaKtav V’haKabala (Rabbi Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenburg 1785 – 1865) offers an alternate explanation for Reuven and Gad’s offer, quoting Rabbi Azarya Piccio (a 17th century Italian rabbi, author of Gidulei Teruma). The tribes offered to go ahead of the Israelites out of recognition of their moral responsibility to share the burden and the danger of the battles to conquer the Land. It would be unjustified and immoral for Reuven and Gad to remain east of the Jordan while the other tribes were risking their lives in battle on the western side. Such behavior would violate the canons of any nation, since the individual has responsibility to the collective. Based on simple morality, Reuven and Gad reached the conclusion that they did not have the right to benefit at the expense of others. They could not abandon the safety of the other tribes and therefore felt the need to risk their own lives and go ahead of the Israelites.
Moshe corrected Reuven and Gad. While their basic approach was valid, it was insufficient, and it ignored the primary factor. The essential reason to go ahead of the Israelites is their obligation before the Lord! God’s will is that before they settle east of the Jordan, Reuven and Gad must help their brothers liberate the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael west of the Jordan. While it is true that simple morality requires that Reuven and Gad assist their brother tribes, but should not be the primary motivation. Fighting to liberate the Land only because it is morally right would not fulfill the true obligation, which is to do God’s will.
The pesukim (verses) indicate this point in two additional places, beyond Moshe’s emphasis on going before the Lord. In posuk 23, Moshe declares “But if you don't do this, you will certainly sin against the Lord; be sure your sin will catch up with you.;” you will know in your hearts whether you have done God’s bidding. In the previous verse, Moshe told Reuven and Gad “And the land is subdued before the Lord - afterwards you may return and be free from obligation to the Lord and to Israel.” This is the proper order; first fulfilling the obligation to the Lord and then to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel). Clearly there is a moral obligation to assist brothers, but the essential point is doing God’s will.
HaKtav V’haKabala concludes with the comment that is a great fundamental of Divine service, to perform mitzvot because they are God’s will. Accepting this as the basis, it is possible to add strata of understanding the value of mitzvot, but the basis must be simple commitment to doing God’s will.
Diligence as the Test of Performance of Mitzvot for the Sake of Doing God’s Will
Based upon HaKtav V’haKabala’s comments, we can understand the reason Reuven and Gad stressed their diligence.
Midrash Bemidbar Rabba [22:6] understands God’s promise to Yehoshua “As I was with Moshe, so I will be with you” [Yehoshua 1:5] to mean that Yehoshua would live as many years as Moshe (120) yet, in practice, Yehoshua’s life was decade shorter. The Midrash explains that when God commanded Moshe to “Execute vengeance for the Israelites from Midian” he proceeded quickly, despite the fact that “After that, you will be gathered to your people (i.e. die)." Yehoshua, on the other hand, was less diligent in conquering the Land, as the verse [ibid. 18:11] states “Yehoshua waged war with all these kings for a long time,” understanding that he would die upon completion of the war, therefore, his life was shortened by a decade.
Why was Yehoshua’s lack of diligence so problematic as to cost him ten years of life? The reason is that diligence is a measure of the extent to which one performs mitzvot as God’s will. If doing God’s will is the primary motivation for performing a mitzva, the individual does not make his own calculations of personal considerations. While we cannot begin to approach the level of Yehoshua, and cannot compare him to ourselves, God is extremely strict with the righteous, and Yehoshua’s lack of diligence, however subtle, was a shortcoming at his high stature. Nonetheless, the Midrash teaches the importance of diligence in performing God’s will.
For this reason, diligence in conquering Eretz Yisrael was crucial in the deeds of Reuven and Gad. Initially, they based their commitment on their responsibility to Am Yisrael, wishing to demonstrate their commitment to their brother tribes. However, as HaKtav V’haKabala explains, Moshe corrected them; while diligence is importance, it must be before the Lord, showing that there are no external considerations motivating their desire to liberate the Land.
This pint is a vital lesson in performance of all mitzvot, and in settling Eretz Yisrael in particular. We must avoid personal considerations in our performance of mitzvot. By being diligent in mitzvot and especially in settling and developing the Land, we will show God that His will is our primary motivation.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad asked to remain east of the River Jordan, but committed themselves to first assisting the other tribes in liberating the Land, even serving as the vanguard. According to Ramban, the two tribes wanted to convey the message to the Children of Israel that unlike Moshe’s spies, they do not fear the Canaanites. However, Moshe taught the two tribes that the more important message is that they have no fear since God will fight for them. HaKtav V’haKabala explains that the tribes wished to fulfill their commitment to the Children of Israel as a matter of simple fairness, but Moshe corrected them by explaining that the essential matter is to fulfill God’s will and thereby fulfill their obligations to the nation.
Yehoshua was punished for delaying the conquest of the Land. Based upon the comments of HaKtav V’haKabala, we understand the significance of Reuven and Gad’s declaration of diligence in liberating the Land, as well as the reason Yehoshua was punished for his lack of diligence. Diligence in performing mitzvot, and especially in liberating the Land is the test of whether doing God’s will is the primary motivation for our actions. This is the reason diligence is so important.
With God’s help we will be diligent in performing mitzvot, especially the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael, and with that merit we will be privileged to witness the complete redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.