Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised (Numbers 32:24).
In the chronology of the Exodus and the 40 years in the wilderness we are right at the end, as the whole book of Deuteronomy is composed of the final speeches of Moses to the Israelites. Miriam and Aaron have already died and now only Moses is left. This Sedra recounts some of his last actions before his final speeches: and what difficult last actions they are – after opening with the laws of oaths, difficult enough for modern readers to comprehend, the next section is concerned with the war against Midian.
The sedra also includes the beginning of the division of the Land among the Israelite tribes, and the tribes of Reuben and Gad saw that the land on the Eastern side of the Jordan was suitable for cattle and wanted to settle there. At first Moses was angry with them, presumably fearing that this would lead to disunity between the tribes at the time when they should have been focusing on conquering. After receiving reassurances that they would help the other tribes in settling the land and only then return to their portion, which would be on the far side of the Jordan. Moses granted them permission to settle there.
When they first asked Moses to settle on the far side of the Jordan, they said, ‘we will build sheep-folds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones’ but when he grants them permission to do so Moses reverses the order of their request and says ‘Build cites for your little ones and sheep-folds for your cattle’ (Numbers 32:24), placing concern for the well-being of their children above concern for that of their cattle.
It is very easy to become too focused on material concerns, especially at times when meeting those material concerns is less easy than it might once have been. Too much focus on meeting the needs of earning a living can have a detrimental effect on family and community life; and sometimes, whatever pressures there are, it is more important to build secure homes for our families before focusing on the welfare of our flocks. Moses’s second concern when faced with their request was the impact it might have on the rest of the Israelites who might have had to go and conquer the rest of the land, or the west side of Jordan without the help of the others. It was only after Moses had received reassurances that when they had settled their families and their flocks they would not only help in conquest of the land, but would be in the vanguard of the battle that Moses consented to their request.
Priorities and responsibilities. The tribes of Reuben and Gad had seen that the lands on the far side of the Jordan were very suitable for cattle and sheep and they wanted to stay there to secure their own economic future. Moses was concerned that they would neglect their duties and responsibilities towards the rest of their people, and he also subtly indicated that their priorities were misplaced. So to remind them that family comes before all things he placed concern for concern for the wellbeing of their children before that for their animals.
Rabbi Adam Frankenberg