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Parshat Matot-Masei: The Choice of the Tribe of Reuben

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Jul 1, 2009

Numbers chapter 32 describes the choice of the tribe of Reuben and Gad to settle in the east bank of the Jordan River, instead of settling with the rest of the children of Israel on the west bank. From studying the commentary of the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, in Ha‘ameq Davar) on the relevant verses in the Parashah, one can get the conclusion that the choice was not that of “good versus evil.” Rather, it was a choice between different conceptions of what is “good.” For sure, obtaining land for one’s flocks and families and living on that land is a noble endeavor. The anger of Moshe Rabbenu, however, was predicated upon the fact that it was nonetheless a wrong choice. The higher good would have been to settle with the rest of the children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan River, in the “land flowing with milk and honey.” The children of the tribe of Reuben (and of Gad) made an inappropriate decision.

The historian Amos Funkenstein famously described R. Moshe ben Nahman, the Ramban, as virtually unique in his application of the principle of ma‘aseh avot siman la-banim (the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children) to biblical narratives, that is, his theory of biblical typological pre-figuration. For example, Ramban understands that Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt prefigured the stay of his descendants in that land. Funkenstein further theorized that this approach was not adopted by other Jewish commentators because the Christians, for their part, utilized the exact same methodology to prove specifically how various events and characters in the Old Testament prefigured those depicted in the New Testament, and for this reason Ramban himself limited his use of pre-figuration to patriarchal narratives. (See his book Perceptions of Jewish History, [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993], Chapter 4 [Medieval Exegesis and Historical Consciousness], “History and Typology: Nahmanides’ Reading of the Biblical Narrative,” pp. 98-121.) The historian Marc Saperstein, on the other hand, who has studied, transcribed and published derashot of Rabbis throughout the ages, strongly disagreed with Funkenstein. In Saperstein’s view, as expressed in his article, “Jewish Typological Exegesis after Nahmanides,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 1:2 (11993-94), pp. 158-70, Ramban may indeed have been the first major Jewish commentator to engage in typological biblical exegesis, but it continued thereafter and continues up until today.

Following Saperstein’s approach, I would say that from one perspective, we can view the actions of the tribe of Reuben as following the typological example set by their forefather Reuben, as indicated in the Book of Genesis. Just as Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob was impetuous, and his hasty decisions were incorrect, his descendants as well did not think before they made decisions.

The biblical commentator Ralbag (Gersonides; R. Levi ben Gershom) [1288-1344] reads this understanding of Reuben into the criticism by his father, the patriarch Jacob, at the end of Genesis:

Reuben, you are my first- born,

My might and first fruit of my vigor,

Exceeding in rank,

And exceeding in honor.

Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;

For when you mounted your father’s bed,

You brought disgrace- my couch he mounted (Genesis 49:3-4).

According to Ralbag, Reuben’s basic character flaw was his impulsive hastiness. Reuben acted upon impulse without any prior intellectual calculation in the matter of Bilhah. Moreover, Reuben also committed a similar hasty verbal faux pas when his father was beside himself upon hearing that his sons wanted to take his son Benjamin to the mysterious ruler of Egypt. Jacob at first resisted sending Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers.

    Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” (Genesis 42:36).

Reuben’s response is no less passionate.

    Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you” (Genesis 42:37).

Ralbag’s critique of Reuben is unsparing.

    With these words Reuben said something crazy, and that is why Jacob did not bother to answer him. The Torah recorded this incident to teach that Reuben was not wise….A wise man would not be seduced into performing…ugly deeds. (R. Levi ben Gershom, Commentary on the Torah, ed. Baruch Braner and Eli Freiman (Ma‘ale Adumim, 1993), Vol. I (Genesis), p. 492 (my translation)).

According to Ralbag, Reuben’s sin in the matter of Bilhah (however one interprets it) and his verbal response to his father regarding Benjamin were both manifestations of the same basic character flaw: mehirut (hastiness.). Mehirut, moreover, is a foolish trait that acts against a person’s long-range considered self-interest. And one who acts foolishly cannot act in one’s self-interest.

Looking at the Parashah typologically, just perhaps the behavior of the children of Reuben expressed the same trait as their forefather. They immediately saw the lush grasslands of the Transjordan, and made a hasty decision to settle there. They should have realized that rational decisions cannot be exercised with mehirut.

Thinkers from the Ralbag to R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Mesilat Yesharim have emphasized the distinction between mehirut and rational, disciplined use of one’s sekhel, one’s intellect. One who carefully uses his intellect to make, judicious, calibrated decision will indeed have a better chance of obtaining the equanimity that is itself a precondition for obtaining more knowledge of God and His world. 

Masei Matot 

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