Classic Questions

Did Re'uvain and Gad's descendants not want to join their brothers at war? What did Moshe reply? (v. 2ff.)

Ramban: Moshe suspected that they were scared to fight, like the spies (see above 13:31), so he accused them of lacking trust in G‑d (v. 6–15). Therefore, they responded that they were not at all scared and that they would lead the conquest (v. 16-19).

Ohr haChayim: Re'uvain and Gad's descendants stressed that since G‑d had defeated so many lands for the Jewish people (v. 4), the conquest of the Land of Israel was clearly also going to be aided by miraculous assistance from G‑d, and that their own help would thus not be required. Moshe replied that while it was indeed true that G‑d would assist them, and that, in essence, the help of Re'uvain and Gad's descendants was not required, nevertheless, the rest of the Jewish people would not understand that this was their intention. The people would interpret the lack of willingness to fight as plain fear. So Moshe argued to them, "Why are you discouraging the children of Israel?" (v. 7).

Tzror Hamor: Moshe said to them: The Land is the most glorious of lands! How could you treat it with such disdain [by choosing not to live in it]? Perhaps the Jewish people will think it has something really disgraceful about it, or some hidden defect... You are blaspheming and despising the Holy Land!

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Request of Re'uvain and Gad's Descendants

Ramban writes that Moshe suspected Re'uvain and Gad's descendants of being scared to fight and lacking trust in G‑d, which is why he strongly criticized them, comparing them to the spies.

However, at the literal level it is difficult to accept Ramban's argument, because:

  1. According to this interpretation, it seems that from the very first instance Re'uvain and Gad's descendants were in fact willing to participate in the war, and Moshe incorrectly presumed that they were not willing to fight because they were scared. However, at the literal level, their statement, "Do not take us across the Jordan" (v. 5), suggests that initially they did not wish to fight and that later they changed their mind.
  2. Furthermore, it is difficult to accept that Moshe totally misunderstood the intentions of Re'uvain and Gad's descendants.

Therefore, it would seem that at the literal level the explanation of Ohr haChayim is more acceptable (that Re'uvain and Gad's descendants felt that their assistance in conquering the Land was unnecessary, because G‑d was going to fight the war for the Jewish people in any case). According to this explanation, Moshe correctly understood their intentions, but feared that the Jewish people would misinterpret them. Therefore, he convinced Re'uvain and Gad's descendants to change their minds and join the war.

However, this leaves us with the following questions:

  1. If Moshe indeed understood that Re'uvain and Gad's descendants did not lack confidence that the Jewish people would safely enter the Land, then why (in v. 8-14) did he compare them to the spies, who had said, "We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than us" (13:31)?
  2. Re'uvain and Gad's descendants merely made a request not to enter the Land, "if it finds favor in your eyes..." (v. 5). Why, then, did Moshe rebuke them so strongly?

Apparently, in addition to criticizing Re'uvain and Gad's descendants for the bad impression they were making on the rest of the Jewish people (as explained above), Moshe also felt that, regardless of their willingness to go to war, their very request to live outside the Land of Israel was a disgrace, as Tzror Hamor writes. Therefore, he rebuked them harshly, comparing them to the spies.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 186ff.)