The Torah’s story traces the origin of the Jewish People, from the dawn of humanity, through our first ancestors and their families, to their eventual subjugation in Egypt. These stories revolve around the struggle to realize God’s promise for their children to live peacefully and securely in their homeland.
The homeland is a core driver of the Torah’s entire story, it’s where the story has been heading from the beginning. With the people stuck in Egypt, God rescues them by sending Moshe to overthrow the world’s most powerful civilization and empire with the aid of transparently magical and supernatural forces, which sustain the Jewish People through years of wandering through a barren wasteland, until they finally make it to the border of the Promised Land. This is the culmination of the Torah’s story, and there is going to be a profound transition.
They’ll have to fend for themselves to a much larger extent, and Moshe won’t be able to join. They won’t be wanderers anymore; they will be colonists and settlers. It’s been a long ride, but they have finally made it.
The trouble is, no sooner than they’re even in sight of the place when a good twenty percent of the people decide that after all that, they don’t really want the Promised Land after all.
Clans from Reuven, Gad, and Menashe take a fancy to the wrong side of the border, which is just too perfect for all their sheep and cattle. So they ask Moshe if they can settle there and relinquish any claim to the Land of Israel, a request that seems as breathtaking in its audacity as its stupidity.
They turn their back on the literal Promised Land God had promised them and their ancestors. They turn their back on the fulfillment of their ancestors’ hopes and dreams, the promise that was an essential part of their heritage and identity. They even turn their back on respectable values – the Midrash observes that they asked to build stables for their cattle before mentioning settlements for their children, suggesting that they cherished their money more than human life.
What’s more, to refuse the Promised Land is not just to choose a different physical path but, by definition, a very different spiritual path as well; they arguably turn their back on God in a certain sense. Years later, the book of Joshua records a story where they have to prove that they still believe in the God of Israel – because that was in question to a certain extent.
Not to mention, entering the Land of Israel is a sensitive topic for Moshe. It’s the thing he is most desperate for, something he prayed countless times for trying to persuade God, and the one instance God refused Moshe and his prayers. These people have his dream within reach, and they don’t even want it!
It’s hard to overstate what a betrayal this was, and Moshe treats it as such. Perhaps the only reason it doesn’t end with the devastation and death that so many similar biblical stories have is that this group didn’t act impetuously; they sought guidance and permission from Moshe. But that doesn’t make the ask any less disturbing. And perhaps in a sense, asking permission is worse, because at least in the other instances, they were hungry or impassioned!
This interaction is one of Moshe’s last – he’s not going to the Promised Land; he knows this is the end of the line for him, and this will be one of his final lessons. It’s unquestionably one of his most timeless and essential.
Moshe doesn’t take them to task for turning their back on the Promised Land, God, their heritage, their ancestors, or for overrating wealth. He could have set them straight on any or all of those counts, but he doesn’t.
He takes them to task for turning their back on their brothers:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי־גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה – Moses replied to the Gadites and the Reubenites, “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?!” (32:6)
In this interaction, Moshe emphasizes the foundational concepts of brotherhood, collective identity, loyalty, and sharing the burden of responsibility.
From the beginning, Moshe’s core defining characteristic is loyalty to his people. He sees someone getting beaten and risks his life to intervene and protect an otherwise total stranger. He sees his people suffering for too long and boldly accuses God of gratuitous cruelty towards his brothers – לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. When they lose their way at the Golden Calf, God threatens their destruction, and Moshe sticks up for them, responding with his own threat – וְעַתָּה אִם־תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם־אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ.
Nobody could be more qualified than Moshe to talk about loyalty; and no lesser than God testifies to Moshe’s fidelity, not just to his employer but to his people as well – עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל־בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. In sharp contrast, the villainous Bilam is mocked as a faithless man loyal to nobody but the highest bidder – בלעם / בלא עם.
Our sages teach that all of Israel is interconnected – כל ישראל עֲרֵבִים זה בזה – suggesting not just connected or linked things, but something gestalt, a new entity, wholly integrated into itself. Our sages liken the Jewish People to a boat – if there is a hole in the hull, we recognize the entire vessel, not just the hull, is in danger and requires your immediate attention and repair.
This story is explicitly political; Moshe expressly rejects the individualistic mentality of self-interested autonomy and liberty. It is wrong to enjoy yours before helping your brothers get theirs; your duty and responsibility are to help them get theirs too, and when we organize our societies, people with a libertarian skew ought to remember Moshe’s words.
The premise of Moshe’s rhetoric is that it is selfish to take without giving back, that it is a self-evident dishonor and disgrace to abandon your brothers to their fates without facing the challenge alongside them. Regardless of your personal beliefs, this orientation is why Chabad volunteers and kiruv professionals set up Jewish infrastructure across the planet and why Israeli citizens commonly take a firm stance on the central importance of national military service.
It is important to note that collective responsibility has an outer boundary; the notion of collective responsibility in guilt is fundamentally problematic and a critical ingredient in genocidal and totalitarian thinking – the Church used such reasoning to justify centuries of antisemitic oppression. The only proper basis for blame and fault is an individual’s moral responsibility, but collective responsibility can still be a helpful concept regarding proactive direction. We didn’t destroy the Temple; that’s not our fault. But we’re collectively responsible for why it hasn’t been rebuilt yet, and we can channel our energies to do better.
Moshe’s emphasis on the responsibility between brothers is the culmination of another central theme of the Torah; the Genesis stories open with Cain asking the existential, haunting, and unanswered question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Genesis tells the stories of generations of families that could not learn to keep each other until Yehuda breaks the cycle and risks everything to stand up and be a keeper for his brother Binyamin.
Moshe’s rhetoric in this story is another firm indication that, yes, you are your brother’s keeper; and if you missed that, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s one of the most important interactions you can have; remembering your brother might be one of the simplest rules in life, but it is certainly one of the hardest for us to practice.
The distorted spirituality and wayward values reflected in the choice to refuse the Promised Land were problematic but somewhat tolerable for Moshe. But disloyalty to their brothers, any loosening of the connection and identity with the greater Jewish People, was a bridge too far.
You might not want to be so observant, or you might not want to sign up for the Israeli army; those might be reasonable personal choices – אַל תָּדוּן אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ. But you can’t choose to avoid your contribution to the Jewish People’s well-being.
Make no mistake, there is a war out there. Our brothers and sisters are on the front lines battling the forces of assimilation, abuse, apathy, ignorance, illness, intermarriage, and poverty. You probably know your capabilities, and you may or may not have the skills and experience to be a front-line activist, advocate, coordinator, educator, or fundraiser. But honestly consider what you have to offer the Jewish People on any of those fronts, small or large, and remember what one of Moshe’s last teachings asks us.
Shall your brothers go to war while you remain over here?