Matot-Masei: Reuben among the sheepfolds

Then [the tribes of Reuben and Gad] came up to [Moses] and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our dependents, . . . [Moses answered] Build towns for your dependents and sheepfolds for your flocks.” (Num 32:16, 24)

Numbers 32 describes the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to remain in Transjordan (east of the Jordan River) rather than settle with the other tribes in Canaan.  Moses upbraids them for deserting the rest of Israel in the upcoming battles, and is only pacified when they offer to join the invading host as an advance guard before returning home.

The question of Reuben’s joining the tribes in warfare comes up again in Judges 5, the Song of Deborah, one of the oldest texts in the Bible.  The Song not only praises those tribes who answered Deborah and Barak’s summons but also shames those, like Reuben, who did not.

“Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.
Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds?
To hear the piping for the flocks?”  (Judges 5:15-16)

Reuben chooses to pursue a pastoral existence in our parsha as well—in fact, the midrash* portrays Reuben and Gad as so keen to pursue it that they don’t have their priorities straight.  “The Reubenites and the Gadites cherished their property more than human life, saying to Moses, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children’ (v. 16).  Moses said to them, That is not right!  Rather do the more important things first.  ‘Build towns for your children’ and afterward ‘sheepfolds for your flocks’  (v 24) . . . the Holy One Blessed Be He said to them, ‘seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in it.'”

*rabbinic interpretation from the first millennium, which often seizes on a very small detail, in this case, the difference in word order between the tribes’ proposal and Moses’ reply.

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