Perhaps those tribes that remained in Jordan, outside of the Land of Israel, were forbidden from bringing their “first fruits” to the Holy Temple because they simply didn’t have what is needed for such a mitzvah: Patience.
This week’s Torah portion (in Israel) is “Matot” (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42), referring to the tribes of Israel. The setting takes place just as the Jewish people are preparing to enter the land of Israel. But instead of preparing along with everyone else, the tribes of Reuven and Gad make an odd request.
“The children of Reuven and Gad had much livestock…They saw the land of Yaazer and the land of Gilad, and they saw that the place was a place for livestock.” (32:1)
The people of Reuven, Gad (and half of the tribe of Menashe) made a special request to Moses: They wanted to live east of the Jordan River in what is today called “Jordan,” and not in the Land of Israel proper. Moses was not too excited about their request and contemplated it with suspicion. He was concerned that the reason for their request was so that they could get out of having to fight and conquer the Land of Israel along with everyone else. He thought they were draft dodgers!
But no. The Reuvenites and Gadites explained that the only reason for their request was that the land of the Jordan was abundant and perfect for their livestock. In fact, to prove themselves and their loyalty to the nation, they told Moses that they would first go along with everyone else to conquer the land and that they would only return to settle in Jordan after the war had ended and the rest of the nation was settled. Moses accepts their offer, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Our sages, however, remain upset with the tribes of Reuven and Gad for wanting to live on the other side of the Jordan River. It is taught that the tribes of Reuven and Gad were the first to go into exile as a result of their choice not to live in Israel proper.
The Common Denominator
It is noted that there is a common denominator between the three tribes who chose to live in Jordan: They were all firstborn. Reuven was firstborn to both his father and his mother; Gad was firstborn to his mother, Bilhah; and Menashe (half of the tribe “piggy backed” with Reuven and Gad and also settled in Jordan) was the firstborn to Joseph.
We know that firstborn sons get certain privileges that other siblings do not. For example, they inherit a double portion of their father’s inheritance, and other siblings must respect them. On a more practical level, firstborn children tend to be leaders by nature, and as a result, they often have loads of energy.
Having loads of energy is often a good thing, but it could also lead to making impulsive and irrational decisions. When Jacob blessed his sons at the end of his life, he rebuked Reuven for being “in a rush like water.” Reuven, we are told, was always in a rush, and as such, would make errors in judgement. This is something that tends to exist among firstborns. Indeed, think about the other firstborns in the Torah who made errors in judgment: Cain, Ishmael, Reuven, Esau (who also lost his firstborn rights). Perhaps being “in a rush” and impulsive was the downfall of many a firstborn.
When the tribes of Reuven and Gad saw the “East Bank,” for them that was it. It was over. It looked good, and so they took it. And the other tribes? They had the patience needed to wait and see the even more beautiful and wonderful land that awaited them on the other side of the Jordan River. But Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe saw good grazing land in Jordan and said, “Let’s grab it!”
It is suggested that the impulsivity of these two and a half tribes “cost them” a mitzvah (a good deed commanded by the Torah). The land of Jordan is disqualified from the mitzvah of offering the “first fruits” of one’s land. Bringing the first fruits to the Holy Temple was a beloved mitzvah. A farmer would spend the entire year working his field, waiting for his fruit to start growing. When they were finally ready, he might be tempted to gather them for himself, but must restrain himself. He would bring the first fruits to the Temple. Only after that could he enjoy his own fruit. What is the lesson of the “first fruits?” Patience!
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.