Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.
At first glance the story of the tribes of Reuven and Gad is a classic case of business negotiation, with both sides initially taking extreme positions and then reaching a mutual compromise. Originally Reuven and Gad suggested that since they had large flocks to tend and the Jews had conquered land on the east bank of the Jordan they could be allowed to formally occupy that land. Moshe thought that these tribes were backing out of their responsibility to assist the Jews in conquering Eretz Yisrael. Therefore he sharply condemned them for not assisting their brothers in the conquest of Canaan, calling them “a brood of sinful men” who wished to dishearten their brothers from completing the conquest of the Promised Land.
At this point Reuven and Gad changed their tune, expressing willingness to fight with the rest of the tribes and only requesting the right to set up beforehand “sheepfolds for their cattle and cities for their children”. They also agreed not to return to their property until the other tribes had occupied their own inheritance. Moshe accepted this initiative and fixed a binding contract which made the inheritance on the east bank contingent on Reuven and Gad’s joining the war effort, and he then granted them the right to this inheritance.
In the book of Yehoshua we find that the tribes of Reuven and Gad fulfilled their side of this contract to the letter: “Then Yehoshua called the tribes of Reuven and Gad …and said to them ‘You have fulfilled all that Moshe , G-d’s servant, required of you, and all that I commanded you to do. You have not left your brothers for many years until this day…and now G-d has granted your brothers what He had promised them, and now return to your tents and your land which Moshe, G-d’s servant, gave you on the east side of the Jordan
Yet despite their exemplary conduct in fulfilling their side of the agreement, these tribes are severely criticized by Cazal. In Midrash Tanchuma they are censured for requesting first protection for their cattle and then for their children, instead of putting their children first. Moshe corrected this in his response to the tribes, and the Midrash adds that “G-d said: You were more attached to your money than to human life, assuredly this money will bring you no blessing”. Similarly in Bamidbar Rabba (22:7) we read:
” The sons of Gad and Reuven were rich and had large flocks. They loved their money and lived outside the Holy Land (since east of the Jordan has less sanctity than the west) and therefore they were exiled before all the other tribes…. What was the cause of this? They separated themselves from their brothers because of their possessions”.
Chazal’s criticism seems harsh judgment for the brave warriors who had risked their lives on the battlefields of Canaan. Why are they accused of “separating” from their brothers when they had shown such solidarity and had not left Canaan until the other tribes had secured their inheritance? Why are they portrayed as moneylovers who care nothing for human life simply because they wanted to preserve their material possessions?
Moreover Chazal in other places (Chulin 91a; Sotah 12a) praise righteous people whose money is more valuable to them than their life, since that money was acquired honestly. For example, Yaakov went to retrieve small jars when he crossed the Yabok River, even though this entailed personal danger. What then was wrong with Reuven and Gad wanting to take care of their money more than their children?
The answer may lie in the subtle difference between Yaakov’s motives and those of Reuven and Gad. Yaakov’s action was based on his conviction that the jars could help him serve G-d better, and it was worth endangering himself to achieve that goal. Reuven and Gad were not looking for a way to dedicate their money to G-d’s service, since the money constituted an end, and not the means to an end. There are a number of proofs for this theory.1) Even if Reuven and Gad had lots of cattle, other tribes also must have had cattle, and yet the other tribes did not worry about what would become of their cattle during the conquest of Canaan. Reuven and Gad’s request represents a lack of trust in G-d’s divine plan. 2) It was no accident that they placed the animals before their children. This reveals that their main intention was to protect their money, without thinking why they are doing so. Yaakov first brought his children to safety and then considered going back for jars which he had “forgotten”(Chulin ibid). The fact that he forgot the jars and the tribes forgot their children reveals where their respective priorities lay. 3) The tribes expressed their willingness to go “before Israel” in the war in Canaan. Moshe emphasizes three times that they are not just going “before Israel”. Rather they are going “before G-d”. Moshe adds “and then you will be meritorious before G-d and Israel”. Moshe is questioning whether their intent is really to serve G-d or merely to placate their brothers fighting in Canaan.
Ultimately the litmus test would be when they returned to their flocks. Would they utilize their possessions to serve G-d, or would those possessions become the goal for which they had fought? Chazal tell us that they failed because they “separated from their brothers” and concentrated on their possessions. The fundamental lesson to be derived from this Parsha is that accruing money can never be allowed to become an end of its own, since this distorts the spiritual goal for which Judaism believes money is given. Reuven and Gad loved their money exclusively and distanced themselves from their brethren and therefore suffered an early exile. This should serve as a warning to us -do not let your money take center stage, or else it will make spiritual growth impossible.
This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.
Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).