Every serious student of Torah is aware that Biblical stories are not as simple as they appear. Behind the obvious, there are secret sub-plots. This week’s tale is no exception. On the surface, the narrative is about two tribes, Gad and Reuven, concerned with their enormous amount of livestock. Recognizing that the recently conquered territories on the eastern side of the Jordan are prime pastureland, they ask that they be given these in lieu of their allotment in Israel proper.
Moses is extremely upset and delivers a fiery sermon: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here? Why do you dissuade the heart of Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given them”?
Forty years earlier he reminds them, their parents were poised to enter the Promised Land. But following a negative report, the entire nation spurned their inheritance. G-d’s response: Stay and die in the desert. And now Moses thunders, “You are repeating the sin of the Spies!” Reprising that mistake, “will destroy this entire nation.”
The tribes accept Moses’ words with grace and clarify their position. Far from seeking to free themselves from the impending battle for Israel, they are fully prepared to send their troops, indeed their soldiers will be in the vanguard. They even pledge, "We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his.” At that point, Moses consents and grants them the Eastern territories.
Sounds simple, right? No! It’s actually quite perplexing. First, since their intentions were really pure, and they never intended to abandon their war-bound brethren, how did Moses so misread them? Second, Moses’ focus was Jews forsaking Jews, but what about Jews forsaking G-d! He wanted them to settle His land; it was His eternal gift, a Divine promise made to Abraham! Who gave these two tribes the right to redefine the Promise? So not why, but how did Moses agree?
Enter the sub-plot: The two tribes were not concerned about cattle; what mattered to them was Moses. The proof for this comes at the end of the Bible, moments before Moses’ passing. In his final words to Gad he says: “He chose the first portion [of land available], for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden.” (Deut. 33)
These cryptic words expose the real reason behind Gad’s insistence to settle the territory to the east of the Jordan. Moses, the lawgiver, was destined to be buried there, so Gad wished to stay with Moses. That his remains be untended in the plains of Moab was untenable.
Thus their cry, “Do not take us across the Jordan” was a plea not to separate them from Moses. In fact, the Chassidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunam, detects this sub-plot in the original Hebrew text: ומקנה רב היה לבני גד עצום מאד (literal translation: The children of Gad had an extremely large number of animals; Num.32) can also be translated as, “The children of Gad possessed a deep acquisition, i.e., an enormous connection to their Rebbe.”
If Moses is not destined to cross the river, they were willing stay put. They weren’t farmers worrying about real-estate. These were souls deeply attached to their teacher.
Clearly, Moses did not anticipate their plea. Equally obvious now is the reason for their deception. They could not talk to Moses about his own death. But Moses sensed they were hiding something. Since he could not fathom that it was only cattle that motivated them, it must be something else. Perhaps they were trying to shirk their military responsibility, but did not want to say so openly. Hence, his sharp rebuke.
That is why they accepted Moses’ censure. They knew that they were not being straightforward. Above all, this was not about their ego; it was about their dedication to Moses. His reprimand did not alienate them, it merely demonstrated once again his genuine love for all Jews. Indeed, his words only strengthened their resolve to remain in his proximity.
Subsequently, when Moses heard their pledge, he relented. And once he understood that Gad would not abandon another Jew; neither would he. If his people reciprocated the love he showered upon them, he would not be the one to expel them from his midst.
Yet after all is said, the Sages criticize the tribes’ decision to remain in Trans-Jordan. Notwithstanding their noble and deeply moving intentions, it was spiritually short sighted. Yes, Gad and Reuven were determined to remain with Moses, yet they failed to realize that Moses’ true presence was not interred in a box, but in his teachings. And that included his mandate that the Jewish people make good on G-d’s promise, transforming the physical landscape into a Holy Land. In fact, this may be the Midrash’s deeper meaning that these tribes cherished material possessions over souls; i.e., Gad and Reuven appreciated Moses’ physical presence more than his spiritual identity.
Moses, in fact all Jewish leaders, are not defined in terms of their physical location. Their lives embodied a truth, a way of looking at the world and understanding the objective of man's journey on this earth. As long as that truth beats in the hearts of their disciples, they remain alive. True, to be in the physical presence of Moses is great. But greater yet is to leave his presence and fulfill his charge.