|Matot-A United Front|
|Written by Rabbi Joshua The Hoffer Hoffman|
At the end of Parshas Matos the Torah gives us an account of the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to be given land on the eastern side of the Yarden (Jordan River), to accommodate the large amount of cattle that they had. Moshe, at first criticized them for wanting to avoid participating in the battle to conquer Eretz Yisroel proper, but they assured him that they would participate in that battle. They told him that they would make provisions for their cattle and their children and then join the rest of the nation in fighting, not returning to their land in Trans-Jordan until Eretz Yisroel proper would be conquered. Moshe agreed to their request, and allowed them to proceed with their proposal.
We need to understand why this episode is recorded where it is, after the battle with Midyan to avenge God’s honor. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to record it in Parshas Masei, in conjunction with the command to conquer and settle Eretz Yisroel and the delineation of Eretz Yisrael’s boundaries?
The Meshech Chochma explains that the pledge made by the tribes of Reuven and Gad to be separated from their wives for so many years by joining the battle to conquer Eretz Yisrael was problematic. The Torah (Devorim 23:10) tells us that specifically in connection with battle we must be on guard to avoid sinking into immorality. How could the tribes of Reuven and Gad put themselves into such a situation that could very easily lead to temptation and sin? However, in regard to the battle with Midyan, the Torah tells us (Bamidbar 32:49) that no man was missing, and the Rabbis explain this to mean that not one soldier committed any act of immorality during the war. Apparently, then, the soldiers at that time were careful in these matters, and, therefore, there was no danger that the soldiers of Reuven and Gad would suffer a moral lapse while engaging in warfare. Thus, the section of the Torah regarding the request of the tribes Reuven and Gad is connected to the section of the battle with Midyan in respect to the participation of Reuven and Gad in the battle to conquer Eretz Yisroel. Therefore, it is reported directly afterwards.
Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger, in his work Eleh HaDevorim, while not addressing the question of the placement of the request of Reuven and Gad, explains that episode in a manner that connects it to the battle with Midyan as well. The Midrash points out that when the tribes say that they will build housing in Trans-Jordan, they mention their cattle before their children. Moshe corrected them, and in restating their pledge, mentions their children before their cattle. The Midrash says that their wording indicated that they were more concerned about their material possessions than about their children, and that material wealth was their prime motivation in asking to receive their portion of land outside of Eretz Yisroel proper. Because of this, says the Midrash, these tribes were, ultimately, the first to go into exile during the period of the first Beis HaMikdash. Why should this ordering of priorities evoke Moshe’s anger and lead the Midrash to excoriate these two tribes? Didn’t they commit to join their brothers in war? Rav Schlesinger explains that while the Talmud Bavli (Yoma 9b) attributes the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash to the proliferation of Sinas Chinam (causeless hatred), the Yerushalmi (Yoma 4b) adds another element, that of love for money. An emphasis on material possession, then, says Rav Schlesinger, leads to hatred among brothers. He further says that a key element in the success of any battle is the unity of the people, and that this is especially true in regard to the conquest of Eretz Yisroel. I remember hearing in 1968, Rav Moshe Tzvi Neryah zt”l, on a visit to my high school in Cleveland Ohio, saying that the reason that the Israeli forces were successful in capturing the old city of Yerusholayim in 1967, but were defeated in battle for that city in 1948, is that the troops were united in 1967, all entering through the same gate, while various feuding factions took part in the battle in 1948, each entering through a different gate.
Interestingly, the Me’or Va-Shemesh on Parshas Balak writes that Balak’s reference to the Jews as a congregation points to his recognition that it was the unity of the nation that enabled it to be successful in its battles against Sichon and Og, and it was this unity that Balak sought to break through Bilam’s curses. While Bilam was not successful in this respect, he successfully advised Balak to use the Midyanite women to entice the Jews and lead them to worship Ba’al Pe’or. This worship broke the unity of the people, which is really the reflection of God’s unity. That unity was restored in the war against Midyan. Moshe told the nation to choose only righteous people to fight in this war of vengeance, as Rashi brings from the Midrash, and the Ramban says that the number of soldiers sent to the front was relatively small to ensure that no one who had anything to do with the disaster instigated by the Midyanites would participate. In this way, the soldiers would be united in their devotion to God and their desire to avenge His Honor. This was the only way they could be successful. Perhaps, then, the episode of the request of Reuven and Gad follows immediately after the battle of Midyan, since the emphasis of these tribes on material wealth threatened to break the unity of the nation and impede their success in conquering Eretz Yisrael.
This need for unity in battle can be seen in Parshas Shoftim, which contains most of the laws regarding war. Before the troops go out to their battle they’re addressed by the Kohein specially designated for this purpose – “Mashu’ach Milchama,” or the One Anointed for Battle. He begins his remarks by saying “Hear Israel, you are drawn near this day unto battle with your enemies” (Devorim 20:3). The Rabbis say that the word “Sh’ma” here, alludes to the declaration of Sh’ma said twice daily which reads “Hear Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and indicates that simply for the merit of saying Shema, the Jewish troops will be successful in their battle. In the context of Rav Schlesinger’s remarks, perhaps we can explain that through the declaration of the unity of God the people will be united as a reflection of God’s unity, ahd in this way achieve victory.