Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
The moment had arrived. Assembled near the Eastern bank of the Jordan river, their forty years of wandering almost complete, our ancestors began preparations to finally enter and settle the Promised Land. What a surprise it must have been for Moses when a delegation from Reuben and Gad, two of the strongest tribes, said that they no longer wanted to settle in the Promised Land, but instead wanted to stay in the fertile lands on the East bank, outside of Israel proper.
Moses refused at first, and rightly so. Such a move would be terribly demoralizing to the other tribes. However, the delegation offered to send all of their fighting men in the vanguard and promised to stay at the forefront of the fight until every enemy had been vanquished, even as their families would stay in fortified cities in their new land on the East bank. Moses agreed with these terms, and the people of Gad and Reuven settled their lands before the rest of Israel crossed over the Jordan.
Fast forward to the end of our parasha, and also by the way, the book of Numbers, for another dispute in Israel. In last week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, Moses granted the daughters of Zelophophad the right to inherit their father’s estate – which represented a dramatic break from patriarchal cultural and legal norms – because their father had no sons. This week the story continues when Moses’ decision is challenged by close male relatives of the daughters (their uncles), who said:
“The Lord charged my lord to give the land to the Israelites in estate by lot, and my lord was charged by the Lord to give the estate of our brother Zelophophad to his daughters. But should they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] Israelite tribes, their estate would be withdrawn from our father’s estate and added to the estate of the tribe to which they would belong …” [Num. 36:1-3]
In other words, each tribe was allotted a specific amount of land, and since land was power, any transfer of land from one tribe to another would also be a transfer of power. Moses heard them out, and then altered the permission to inherit: the daughters could still inherit so long as they chose husbands from among their tribe. However, if they chose husbands from other tribes then they could no longer inherit.
While to our modern eyes, we may see this as deeply problematic and misogynist decision, in reality the issue being discussed is not gender equality, but something altogether different. Indeed, the stories about the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and about the daughters of Zelophophad are about exactly the same thing: how to balance personal interests with the greater good.
If the two tribes simply settled on the East bank but did not help the other tribes conquer the land, they would have caused serious harm to the rest of Israel because of their own self-interests. Similarly, if the balance of power between the tribes became unstable because of the self-interest of Zelophophad’s daughters, that too could cause lasting damage to the cohesion of Israel.
It is no mistake that both of these stories are told before we enter the Land. They are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that as such, we need to balance the needs of the few with the needs of the many. Only then, will we truly bring the covenantal promise of Torah to life.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras