Mattot: Learning

July 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Mattot | Leave a comment

Not all twelve tribes 0f Israel settle in the land of Canaan. In the Torah portion Mattot (“tribes”), the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle down on the east side of the Jordan River from Canaan, in the land of Gilad. I think it is noteworthy that even though everyone knows Moses is going to die on the east bank of the Jordan, and Joshua will lead the Israelites across the river to conquer Canaan, the Gadites and Reubenites do not secretly plot to make their move after Moses dies and the new leader has to take charge.  No, they ask Moses’ permission ahead of time, in front of all the leaders of Israel.

Some traditional commentary claims the Gadites and Reubenites were exclusively interested in their own wealth, not in the God nor the fate of Israel.  But I believe the mere fact that they asked for Moses’ permission ahead of time proves that they still wanted to be in good standing with the people Israel and the god of Israel.

The subsequent dialogue between Moses and the speaker for the Gadites and Reubenites can be read two different ways. So when I lead services this Friday evening, I am going to hand out the following script for a reader’s theater.

Two Tribes Ask for a Favor

A = The Conversation in the Torah (Bemidbar/Mattot 32:1-32)

B = The Negative Interpretation of classic commentary, from Midrash Rabbah to Sforno

C = A Positive Interpretation


NARRATOR:      The children of Reuben and the children of Gad had abundant livestock, very vast herds. They saw … the land of Gilad, and hey!—the place was a place for livestock. The children of Gad and the children of Reuben said to Moses— (32:1-2)

SPEAKER A:       If we have found favor in your eyes, this land will be given to your servants as a permanent holding.  Do not take us across the Jordan! (32:5)

SPEAKER B:       Look at all the livestock we own! We are so rich! Why should we risk losing any of our livestock? Don’t take us into Canaan. We want to own this land of Gilad, instead.

SPEAKER C:       We don’t want to do anything without your permission, but we noticed that this is good livestock land, here.  And we have livestock. (Pause.) So, um, if we have found favor in your eyes, you could assign us the land of Gilad as our permanent holding.  We’d rather live here than across the Jordan.


MOSES A: Will your brothers enter the war, while you, yourselves, stay here? Why do you hinder the heart of the children of Israel from crossing into the land that God has given to them? That’s what your fathers did, when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to spy out the land …  (32:6-8) … And it caused trouble for this whole people. (32:15)

MOSES B (angrily):  What? Do you actually think your brother tribes will cross the Jordan and fight for the land God promised them, if you stay behind in this territory that we already conquered? They’ll think you’re afraid of the Canaanites!  Just like your fathers!  Remember how the spies discouraged everyone from going into Canaan, and stuck us all in the wilderness for 40 years?

MOSES C (disappointed):       You don’t want holdings in the promised land? Well, what about the other ten tribes? Can they take over Canaan if you stay here? Will they even try? Or will it be like when the spies came back and made everyone afraid?


SPEAKER A:       We will build stone pens for our livestock here, and cities for our non-marchers—our small children and our aged.  But as for us, we will arm ourselves and hurry ahead in front of the children of Israel, until we have brought them to their place (in Canaan)… We will not return to our houses until every one of the children of Israel has received his permanent possession. (32:16-18)

SPEAKER B:       We’re just thinking about our livestock. So we’ll build pens for our animals here in Gilad.  Oh, and cities for our children and old folks and women. But our fighting men will cross the Jordan with the children of Israel.  We’ll be in the front lines, even.  And we won’t come back across the Jordan until all the tribes of Israel have their property. Is that enough so we can have Gilad?

SPEAKER C:       Oh.  We didn’t realize the other tribes needed us. (Pause.) We could build stone pens for our livestock here, and cities for everyone who can’t fight.  And our fighting men will arm themselves and stay in the front lines of the Israelites, until we’ve brought all our brother tribes to their places in Canaan.  We will not return to our houses until every one of the children of Israel has received his permanent possession. If we get property, everyone should get property.


MOSES A: If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before God for the war, and you all cross the Jordan armed before God, continuing until God’s enemies are dispossessed before God, and the land has been subjugated before God— then you may return.  And it will be established for God and for Israel, and the land will be yours as a permanent holding before God. (32:20-22)

But if you do not do this, hey!—you are offending God.  Know that your offense will catch up with you! So build for yourselves cities for your non-marchers, and stone pens for your livestock. And then what has gone out from your mouth, you must do. (32:23-24)

MOSES B:  But if you do not do this, you will be committing a sin against God.  And sins against God don’t go unpunished! So go ahead and build cities for your children here—and pens for your livestock, if you insist.  And then you’d better carry out your promise, or else you’re finished.

MOSES C:  But if you do not do this, hey!—you will be in the wrong, and it will be a wrong against God.  Please keep that in mind.


SPEAKER A:       Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our non-marchers, our women, our herds, and all our livestock, they will be there in the cities of the Gilad. And your servants will cross, everyone armed in the legion, before God, to the war—as my lord speaks. (32:25)

SPEAKER B:       Yes, sir, we’ll do everything you command, sir. As long as we get the land on this side of the Jordan.

SPEAKER C:       Far be it from us to go back on our promise! We’ll do exactly as you command. And then can we have our hearts’ desire? Not just the land for livestock, but the cities for our children. Thank you for the reminder that they come first. Oh, and for the reminder that we’re fighting for God, as well as for our fellow Israelites.


NARRATOR:  Then Moses issued a command about them to Elazar the Priest, and Joshua son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers of the tribes. (32:28)

MOSES A: If they cross the Jordan with you, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, everyone armed for the war before God, and the land is subjugated before you, you shall give them the land of the Gilad as a permanent holding.  But if they do not cross over armed with you, then—they will be given possessions among you in the land of Canaan. (32:29-30)

MOSES B and C: What he said.


SPEAKER A:       That which God has spoken to your servants, thus we will do. We will cross over, armed for battle before God, to the land of Canaan. And then a permanent holding of our possession will belong to us on the other side of the Jordan. (32:31-32)

SPEAKER B:       Don’t forget we’re going back across the Jordan, to take possession of all that beautiful livestock land.

SPEAKER C:      You mean—even if we don’t meet our sacred obligations, you won’t just abandon us?  We’ll still get a place to live, even if it’s in Canaan instead of the Gilad?

MOSES C: Of course.  Gad and Reuben are still tribes of Israel, even if you are emotionally attached to owning vast herds of livestock. You’re still included in God’s promise.  Besides, if it turns out that you can’t balance your own desires with your duty to your community and your duty to God, well, then you’ll need some extra religious education—in Canaan.

SPEAKER C:       We are honored. We are your servants—I mean, God’s servants.  We will do what God has spoken. And the land of Gilad will become our permanent holding only after we have helped to secure Canaan. And we’ll remember that God owns the land on both sides of the Jordan. All the land in the world, in fact. We will only be holding the land for God, just like our fellow Israelites across the Jordan.


NARRATOR: So Moses gave them, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, … the land with its cities. (32:33)

(SPEAKER A and MOSES A shake hands.)

(SPEAKER B and MOSES B nod to one another stiffly, then turn away disgusted.)

(SPEAKER C and MOSES C hold both hands and smile warmly at one another.)


MELISSA:  So what do you think? If people start out like the tribes of Gad and Reuben, thinking only about wealth and possessions, will they do the right thing only if it means they get the property they want?  Or can they learn to appreciate other things—their own families, their larger community, and even the Holy One?


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