Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Matot-Masei (Midrash)

Why Was Moses Angry at the Gadites and the Reubenites?

As we already noted in our first cycle of Hitzei, the Torah, the historical books of the Bible, and the midrashic and medieval exegetical traditions, all come down very hard on the tribes of Gad and Reuben (and later on, the “half” tribe of Manasseh—really only two out of its ten clans) for wanting to settle in the steppe country east of the Jordan, which they found more suitable for their chosen endeavor of raising livestock.

Both the relevant chapter in our weekly portion, Numbers 32, and the Book of Joshua, Chapter 22, “throw the book at them.” In our parsha, the spokesmen of Gad and Reuben barely have a chance to open their mouths when Moses delivers a long, impassioned harangue, invoking the memory of the incident of the spies and implying that they too are sowing discontent among the people, discouraging them from entering the land. In Joshua 22, the Transjordanian tribes erect an altar which, as it turns out, was specifically intended to be a reminder of their connection with the rest of the people; but the other ten tribes immediately muster troops to make war against them, again mentioning various unsavory incidents from the past—Baal Peor (“from which we have not yet been purified”; v. 17; see Num 25:1-9) and the trespass of Achan (see Joshua 7), before even listening to what they really had in mind.

The last three midrashim of our parsha all relate to this incident in a variety of ways. I shall present here the relevant material, in some cases skipping over the various digressions, interesting as these may be in their own right. We start with Numbers Rabbah 22.7:

“And the children of Reuben and children of Gad had much cattle” [Num 32:1]. Halakha: Three gifts were created in the world; if a person merited any one of them, he has come to enjoy all the pleasant things of the world. If he merited wisdom, he has merited all. If he merited strength, he has merited all. If he merited wealth, he has merited all. When? When they are gifts from heaven and come by virtue of the Torah, but the strength and wisdom of mortal men are as nothing… [there follow proof texts from Eccles 9:11 and Jer 9:22-23] And these gifts, when they do not come from the Holy One blessed be He, shall in the end cease from him.

This midrash, like several in earlier parshiyot, is introduced by the one word, “Halakha,” but this time the use of the word is rather strange, as what follows is not halakha at all, in the sense of specific rules applying to concrete, practical behavior, but seems more like aggadah—an ethical-theological value statement. But it would seem that Hazal do occasionally use the word in this manner, to make a statement about “the way things are,” as in the oft-quoted statement: “Halakha: Esau hates Jacob.”

In any event, we have here a powerful statement celebrating total trust in God, and the sense that those who are truly righteous and deserving will receive the Divine gifts of wisdom, strength, or wealth without actively pursuing them; human effort and its fruits, by contrast, are greatly denigrated. The position expressed here is that sometimes known as “quietism”: the sense that all that happens in life is totally dependent upon God’s intervention, and human effort is almost blasphemous. But the tension between bitahon, “trust in God,” and hishtadlut, “effort,” is a perennial one in Jewish thought, on which more below.

Our sages taught: Two wise men arose in the world, one from Israel and one from the nations of the world: Ahitophel from Israel and Balaam from the nations of the world. And both were lost from the world…. And two mighty heroes… Samson and Goliath…. And two wealthy men… Korah and Haman. Why ? Because their gifts were not from the Holy One blessed be He, but they took them for themselves. And you find likewise regarding the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, who were wealthy and had much cattle, and they liked their money and dwelt outside of the Land of Israel. Therefore they went into exile first among all the tribes, as is said: “And he [i.e., Tiglath-pilneser king of Assyria] took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh” [1 Chr 5:26]. And what caused this to happen to them? Because they separated themselves from their brethren due to their property. From whence do we know this? From what is written in the Torah: “And the children of Reuben had much cattle….”

The bottom line here is: the cardinal sin of these tribes was their undue emphasis on material wealth, which caused them to break solidarity with their brethren (even though they later offered to participate in the conquest of the country, and did so). Does this incident perhaps allude, indirectly, to an ongoing fissure within the always fragile union of the twelve tribes, between the Transjordanian tribes and those in the main part of Eretz Yisrael? (This would be similar to the great divide between the Joseph and Judah tribes, which began in the ancient times of the Jacob family, and continued through the book of Judges and into the time of the divided monarchy.) One has a sense, reading the account in Joshua 22, of these tribes turning longingly to the Sisjordanian tribes for acceptance, and being rejected. “We want to remember you, and you look on us with suspicion!” Actually, the Bible tells us little about these two and a half tribes and their interaction with the rest of the people. The general impression gained is of a wild and wooly hinterland, a kind of “Wild West,” populated by rough, violent and lawless people; thus, e.g., from the story of Jephthah in Judges 11. 1 Chr 5:18-22 describes them as particularly valiant and skilled warriors, but the verse immediately preceding that quoted by our midrash speaks of these tribes “whoring after the gods of the people of the land”—i.e., religious syncretism, succumbing to the norms of their non-Israelite neighbors—as the reason for their exile. (Ironically, in late and post-Second Temple times this area was a center of intense national and religious feeling, as witnessed by the resistance to the Romans in Gamla, Qatzrin, etc.)

The next midrash is actually somewhat positive in its take on the two and a half tribes, the main issue discussed being, again, that of human effort vs. divine providence and blessing. Numbers Rabbah 22.8:

This is what the Scripture says: “Not from the east [lit.: “going out”—Heb., motza; i.e., the “going out” of the sun] and not from the west, nor from the desert nor from the mountains. For it is God who executes judgment: this one He brings down, and that one He lifts up” [Ps 75:7-8]. What is meant by “not from the going out and not from the west”? A person does not become wealthy from his going out and toiling with merchandise and going about from east to west. Even if he sets out in ships and travels from east to west and goes to the deserts and the mountains, he does not become wealthy. [Rather, God determines men’s fortunes. There are various illustrations on how God distributes wealth, expounding the phrase, “this one he brings down, and that one he lifts up,” and a similar phrase in 1 Sam 2:6-7]

A certain matron once asked R. Shimon b. Halafta: In how many days did the Holy One blessed be He create the World? He said to her: In six days, as is said, “for in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth” [Exod 20:11]. She asked him: And since that time what has He been doing? He replied to her: He sits and makes ladders—he raises this one up and brings that one down. Of this it is said: “for God executes judgment: this one he brings down, and that one he lifts up.”

The entire world is, so to speak, the playing board for a Divine game of snakes and ladders! In a parallel version of this story in Genesis Rabbah 68.4 (Parshat Vayetsei), a matron (the same one?) asks his brother, R. Yossi bar Halafta, the same question, and is told “He makes matches” (zivvugim). She responds, “What? That’s easy!”—only to discover that it’s not as simple as it seems. The two versions may perhaps be read as a variant of the perennial argument between Freud and Marx: Which is more important, the economic or the sexual side of life? (Or, more likely, the midrashic author emphasized one or another in accordance with the specific issue at hand) But for our purposes this is a second order question.

The essential question posed by the matron is: if God is essentially a Creator, what do we need Him for now? The argument resembles the 18th century Deist position: the world was indeed created by God, but He is like a watchmaker. After creating everything and sets the machinery in motion, with all the set, immutable laws of physics and chemistry and biology, etc., He withdraws from the scene and lets things run by themselves. (I don’t know the history of philosophy well enough to identify it, but I imagine that this view corresponds to one of the schools of ancient Greek philosophy.) The answer given by the Halafta brothers is that God is also actively involved in running things; even trivial, everyday occurrences reflect Divine providence.

Know, that when the Reubenites and Gaddites wished to become rich, He brought the Midianites to the children of Israel, so that the Gadites and Reubenites might become wealthy. What is written just before this? “And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their children” [Num 31:9]. Thereafter: “and they had much cattle.” The Holy One blessed be He brought down the Midianites and lifted up Israel, to fulfill what is written: “Not from the east [or: going out] and not from the west, nor from the desert nor from the mountains. For it is God who executes judgment: this one he brings down, and that one he lifts up.”

The third midrash on this subject introduces a new, important theme. Numbers Rabbah 22.9:

Another thing: “And much cattle.” This is what Scripture says: “The wise man’s heart is to his right, and the fool’s heart is to his left” [Eccles 10:2]. [The Midrash first interprets this as referring to the Good Urge and the Evil Urge, or to the righteous and the wicked in general. It then continues]: Another thing: “The wise man’s heart is to his right”—this is Moses. “And the fool’s heart is to his left”—these are the children of Reuben and Gad, who made the primary thing secondary and the secondary thing primary. For they cherished their property more than thy did [human] lives. They said to Moses: “We shall build sheepfolds for our flocks and cities for our children” [Num 32:16]. Moses replied: This is naught, but you should place the main thing first: “Build cities for your children” [ibid, v. 24], and only thereafter “and pens for your sheep.” That is: “The wise man’s heart is to his right.”

The Midrash, noting a subtle difference in the order in which things are presented in the words of the tribes and in those of Moses, ascribes this to a difference in principle: the tribes thereby expressed their own order of priorities.

The Holy One blessed be He said to them: You cherished your flocks more than your lives; by your lives, there is no blessing in this. Concerning them it was said: “An inheritance gotten hastily in the beginning, shall not be blessed in the end” [Prov 20:21]. And it also says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; by your wisdom desist” [Prov 23:4]. Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as is said: “When you eat of the toil of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be well with you” [Ps 128:2].

The main theme here is what might be called the “religious critique of money,” and the latter’s transformation into the central force in a person’s (or group’s) life. There is no need to elaborate upon the timeliness and relevance of such a critique to the current socio-economic climate of might be described as “hyper-capitalism.” We are witnesses to a process of globalization, in which the entire world has become one market, dominated by massive international conglomerates that go far beyond simple individual greed. Together with this, we have seen the gradual dissolution of broad social benefits to the general population, as well as of the hard-won gains of the labor movement. Here in Israel, there has been an exact reversal, over the course of perhaps three generations, of the original Zionist ethic of the dignity and human value of productive labor. Today, “administration” and “management” are king.

The problem with this system is not only that it exacerbates human inequality, creates dire poverty, and indeed seems to make many people expendable (some projections see the specter of chronic unemployment for large numbers of the less educated looming in the future). It also cheapens cultural and spiritual values. The central motif of advanced capitalism, which has become increasingly dominant over the course of the past few decades, is that the central moving factor in all human activities is the economic motive, the desire for wealth. Curiosity, the creative impulse, the quest for personal integrity and wholeness, even the religious impulse itself, are all reduced to commodities. It is assumed that anyone who writes a book, paints a picture, creates a work of music, even starts a social movement, does so in order to sell it as a “product.” An entire generation seems to be being educated that this is not only true descriptively, but is the only way that things can and should be.

The Jewish religious tradition, as taught inter alia in this midrash, teaches an entire alternative set of values. Money is necessary, but subordinate to other goals in life—i.e., avodat ha-Shem, God consciousness, Torah study, etc. One may either reject this from the perspective of “worldly wisdom,” saying that it is hopelessly naive about “the real world,” or else at least consider it as a viable alternative. Haredi society (with all my criticism of many of its aspects) has created a society of “voluntary poverty” which to a great extent (albeit by no means completely) plays down wealth as a central goal in life. Many people devote a great deal of time and effort to various kinds of mitzvot without thought of remuneration: teaching Torah to others, acts of gemillut hasadim (kindness to others), etc. Of course, that society is exists largely thanks to the massive economic support of wealthy donors abroad and of Israel government funding obtained through political pressure, at times bordering on blackmail. Nevertheless, its success in inculcating its a-capitalist values to its children is quite impressive.

A comparison to socialist and Marxist thought is instructive. Classical Marxism critiqued modern capitalism, not only for creating inequality and injustice, but also for its causing a situation of alienation, in which all things and even human beings are reduced to commodities. The young Marx dreamt and wrote of the day when human life would flourish in an unalienated, culturally and psychologically free environment. Nevertheless, the central thrust of revolutionary Marxist-Leninism, i.e. communism, as it came to be manifested in 20th century history, was essentially to agree with capitalism’s materialistic interpretation of human culture and society (which of course on some level is true—everyone needs food, shelter, clothing, etc.), and to argue for the need fir redistribution of wealth. That, and especially the theory of the dictatorship of proletariat, combined with the emergence to the fore of cynical, corrupt leaders (which was inevitable given the lust for power of human beings), led to the replacement of old tyrannies by new, and to its moral downfall.

* * * * *

To return to the two-and-a-half tribes: two other interesting side points are noted by commentators on our parsha, both of which show these tribes in a more generous, favorable light.

1. Ramban (on 32:29) notes that they originally only settled in, and asked of Moses, a handful of “cities of Gilead” listed by name; Moses’ conditions were “all or nothing.” If they in fact fulfill the agreed conditions, they will inherit the whole area of eastern Transjordan (which, by the way, is considerably larger than the area known today as the Golan, settled by Israel after the Six Day War; this expansion necessitated the inclusion of the half tribe of Manasseh in the deal); if not, they will get nothing: not even the Gilead or the use of those places where they had already provisionally settled their wives, children and flocks.

2. Rashi, on v. 24, observes that Moses had only demanded that they participate in fighting until the conquest of the land; they offer for their menfolk to remain until the land is also settled and divided. The phrase in Moses’ second speech, “that which you said you shall do,” is seen as his insistence on holding them to their word.


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