imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Fighting the last war

26 July 2004

When the leaders of Reuven and Gad approached Moses with their audacious plan to not cross the Jordan River, Moses accused them: “This is what your parents did, when I sent them to Kadesh Barnea to scout the land: They went to the wadi of Eshkol, scouted the land, and demoralized the Israelites, until they were unwilling to go to the land that the Eternal had given them” (Numbers 32:9–10). This accusation is not entirely fair. Reuven and Gad weren’t imitating their parents; they were imitating their peers.

After the scouts’ report, the Israelites were not only refusing to enter the land: they were saying to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (14:4). Reuven and Gad, by contrast, did not feel any nostalgia for Egypt. They were just so content with their present situation that they didn’t even want to try out Israel’s pasture land before rejecting it.

It might be more accurate to compare Reuven and Gad with the officers in the war against Midian, who killed all the Midianite men but kept the women and children alive (30:9). As Moses reminded them later, these were the same women who had tempted so many of their comrades into idolatry (31:16). Were the Israelite officers keeping the women alive so that they could be sent off to live with their cousins in Syria? More likely, the soldiers just saw a chance to get the same thing they had gotten before the war, only this time without the idol worship.

In this parsha, even before the Jewish nation crossed the border into Canaan, they crossed a different kind of border: from the temptations of the slave to the temptations of a wealthy householder. Like a general fighting the last war, Moses did not notice the transition.