Dealing with Chutzpah

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week we conclude the book of Bamidbar with the reading of its final two parshiot, Mattot and Masei. In general terms, reading Sefer Bamidbar is a gloomy experience. It begins on a high note, describing the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its dedication. The entire nation was then organized for the triumphal march into the Promised Land. However, from out of nowhere, calamity struck.

A spirit of rebellion took hold of the people, and a series of tragedies ensued. The culmination was the sin of the spies and the decree of the 40-year stay in the wilderness. The tragedy was that the generation who experienced the Exodus and the subsequent miracles of Hashem was deemed unworthy to enter Eretz Yisrael.

We can’t help but be affected by the plight of the generation of the Exodus. They signify the phenomenon of “missed opportunities” and teach us that not everything in life is “bashert.” Hashem had intended for the former slaves to be redeemed and take up residence in the Land of Israel. That was what was bashert. Yet man has the ability to undo the “intended” to deny himself, through sin, of the great benefits that Hashem has prepared for him. That is a major lesson we need to learn from the story of the spies.

Bamidbar also details the events that occur after the 40-year period of wandering. Once again, the people are getting ready to resume the delayed journey to the Land. They had defeated the mighty kings, Sihon and Og, and had inherited their land. Thus, they were now in possession of the lands on the eastern side of the Jordan River, which today is known as the Kingdom of Jordan.

Suddenly, the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moshe with a special request. Both of these tribes had large amounts of livestock. The newly conquered lands were vast and filled with grazing areas that would render them prime property for these tribes. They requested that Moshe allow them to take their inheritance on these lands and not cross the Jordan with their brothers.

Moshe responded to them with a sharp rebuke. Although Moshe was the most humble and compassionate leader, he could be brutally honest and critical when necessary. He lashed out at the representatives of the two tribes and accused them of undermining the morale of their brethren, who would attribute their decision to settle east of the Jordan to fear of the inhabitants of the Land. This would have dire consequences for the objective of conquering Eretz Yisrael.

To hammer home his point, Moshe recounted for them the sin of the spies and went so far as to accuse them of being a group of sinful people who have taken up the role of their fathers in furthering the anger of Hashem against Israel.

The “offending” parties regrouped and returned to Moshe with an entirely new proposal. They would build shelters for their animals and houses for their families. Then they would join their brothers in the war of conquest and be in the vanguard of the military attacks. They would remain on the western side of the Jordan until the conquest was complete, and the people had been settled in their inheritance. Only then would they return to their homes on the other side of the Jordan.

Moshe completely reversed his attitude as a result of this extremely magnanimous offer. He formalized the terms of the agreement and warned these tribes to be scrupulous in fulfilling them. What had begun as a harsh and angry confrontation ended up in a peaceful and agreeable manner.

What lesson can we learn from this fascinating account? Moshe’s initial response seems to be unnecessarily harsh and accusatory, especially in light of the subsequent reasonableness of the two tribes. Why was Moshe so scathing and biting in his criticism?

It may be difficult for us, in this age of political correctness, to feel comfortable about Moshe’s behavior. However, the lesson of the story is that there are times when we need painful rebuke. The two tribes had displayed great insensitivity to the implications of their initial request. They became focused on their personal material needs and lost sight of how their proposal would affect Klal Yisrael.

Moshe deemed that this obliviousness to the danger of repeating the sin of the spies warranted a reaction that would shake them from their complacency. He was more concerned with the state of their souls than with ruffled feelings. He displayed a side of his nature that we had not seen before, i.e., the ability to deliver a sharp and precise rebuke that shook a person to the core.

There are times in a person’s life when one needs a good dose of incisive and piercing rebuke. We should have the courage to deliver it when necessary and to receive it when deserved. For, as the Torah attests, “The one whom Hashem loves does He rebuke.”

Shabbat shalom.