“Then [the Gadites and Reubenites] stepped up to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children’ (Numbers 32:16).
How can we build a safe and reliable world for ourselves and those who come after us in times of transition and uncertainty? That is the question raised by the request of two tribes, the Gadites and Reubenites who want to remain on the eastern side of the River Jordan with their cattle and families, rather than settle in the territories about to be conquered in the Promised Land. The already conquered territory east of the Jordan River will provide sufficient pasturing ground for all their needs. ‘Let us build sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children,’ they say to Moses. Subtly, Moses gets them to agree that they cannot back out of the military invasion of the rest of the land. They are to be chalutzim – a word, which in modern Ivrit means ‘pioneers’, but which in the biblical context means ‘ready for war’ or ‘shock-troops’ as one translation puts it (32:21). ‘If you fail to do this,’ says Moses, ‘you will have sinned against God and know, that your sin will overtake you.’ And then, inverting the tribal leaders’ own words, he tells them that it is their children who should come first, before their property: ‘Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised’ (32:24).
Who are these clans whose self-interest in putting their cattle and flocks first before their children leads to the rabbinic accusation that they loved their possessions more than their families? We know that the Reubenites were descended from Jacob’s first born, Reuben; while Gad (the name means ‘fortune’ or ‘good fortune’) is the firstborn of Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah. Of the two tribal entities, a little more is disclosed from Jacob’s deathbed blessing to his sons: ‘Reuben, my first-born, you are my strength and first fruit of my vigour’ (Genesis. 49:3). The tribe is portrayed as strong and robust, although not without its shortcomings, for Jacob reminds Reuben that he had slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah – an attempt perhaps of the firstborn to supplant his father. As for Gad, the blessing reveals him to be both victim and perpetrator, raided and raider, courageous and cowardly (49:19).
We know too that they are both wealthy tribes, owning cattle in very great numbers. With an eye for the main chance, they have discovered that the plains of the eastern bank of the Jordan are perfect pasturing land for their cattle and perhaps, reading between the lines, they may simply be fed up with the nomadic existence of wandering from one watering place to another. What they want at this very moment is some economic security; they want to put down their roots, they want to know that their cattle will be well fed from one end of the year to the other and that they will enjoy only the best (Deut. 33:21).
Moses, however, has other ideas. He is not going to allow them either military or economic security. There cannot be personal security, until a collective vision is realised. If you want to be part of this people, he implies, you have to fight with them, suffer their battles and risk the uncertainties, fears and insecurities of life, before you put down your roots. It is this quest for security, expressed by the two tribes, that suggests that if we wish to be part of the Jewish people today, we have to identify with anxieties, battles and paranoia of being a Jew in the modern world. But that is too simplistic a message, for why should add to our own anxieties of family life, work, the illness of friends and the state of the world, a projected anxiety about the dangers to the Jewish people?
One might ask why not let the men and their families settle in this choicest of spaces? Why insist that they go into battle with their fellow Israelites? But is this the right question to ask. Because if one of the essential and significant lessons here is about security, whatever that word might mean, then what we learn from these verses is that there is no such thing as this kind of material security. We can never be sure that there will never be another flood, or tsunami or forest fire, or famine or war. We learn that whatever strongholds we choose for ourselves, whether the green pastures of our sheepfolds or the careful risk assessed environments of our schools, work, public transport systems and motorways, the quest for physical security is always elusive.
Rabbi Howard Cooper, in an article entitled ‘What is our security’ tells the story of a man who, one day, is told that he will die from a fall. Such is the terror this generates in him that he decides never to leave his home again. But confining himself to his house doesn’t remove the fear. A sense of security is not so easily gained, for fear has its own authority. He could, after all, fall down the stairs – he lives in a mansion and there are many flights of stairs. So he decides, ‘for safety’s sake’, to confine himself to the ground floor. But soon he realises that the floors downstairs are polished: couldn’t he easily slip and break his neck? The dining-room, however is fully carpeted, so he decides to live only in that room. Ordering his staff to serve his meals there, he never leaves the room. Yet still he feels unsafe: he thinks, ‘I could still stumble and fall, hit my head and die.’ So he orders an armchair to be placed in the middle of the room, away from all sharp objects and hard surfaces and – in a moment of triumphant certitude – insists that his servants tie him down into the chair. A sense of security descends. No danger now of a fall, he thinks. The loss of his freedoms is nothing compared to the relief that his fear can never come true. But when he hears the rustling above him, and feels grains of plaster on his skin, he looks up and sees the ancient crystal chandelier over his chair unmoor itself from its casing and begin to fall towards him…
It is that false sense of security that we create around ourselves that Jeremiah attempts to address in the Haftarah for this week (Jeremiah 2:4-28 and 3:4), believing that the crystal chandelier of God’s anger is crashing down into his world: ‘They went after empty things and themselves became empty’ (2:5). Because you moved away from God, because you never sought to ask ‘Where is the Eternal One who brought us up from the land of Egypt and led us in the wilderness’ who led us through a place of desert and pits, drought and darkness, through a land that none had crossed, where no one had lived, then, says God, I will go on accusing you and will accuse your children’s children.
What kind of message does God deliver to Jeremiah? What kind of safety and trust is offered by a God, whose presence, one might imagine, would remain securely with His people in times of harsh judgement? He will accuse and go on accusing future generations, or in words spoken to the prophet earlier: ‘See, I have appointed you this day [to speak] to nations and kingdoms, to uproot and pull down, to destroy and to root out…’ (1:10). At moments of terrible uncertainty and transition – when Jeremiah and his contemporaries are about to suffer the catastrophe of exile and loss of land and Temple – what security can be offered, what minimisation of risk? God’s word to Jeremiah is liv’not v’lin’to’a – ‘to build and to plant’. Can we construct a safe and reliable world on the rubble of uncertainty?
It is only later on when this motif of destruction and rebuilding is repeated not once but twice in the Book of Jeremiah, that one understands that the prophet is attempting to make sense of the uncertainties that surround him. Only when he can, as it were, accommodate the loss and make a little sense of it, does he feel ready to embrace the hope of redemption and rebirth: ‘Behold the days are coming, says the Eternal One, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah…I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every one their neighbour saying ‘Know the Eternal One’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Eternal One’ (Jeremiah 31:31 ff).
This is the universal moral vision of one of the most passionate and intense advocates of redemption and hope. Security and certainty are not physical constructs for Jeremiah, nor indeed for Moses faced with mutiny from the clans. They emerge from an inner capacity for renewed faith in ourselves, in our goodness, in our ability to help others, in our respect and reverence for human beings, in our perception that security comes from things that transcend the physical and material things of life and from our capability, as it were, to place our trust in something other, something deeper than ourselves, call it resilience or courage or strength or even God.
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.