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Parashat Matot-Mase: The Repentance of Reuben and Gad

Parashat Matot tells the story of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who approached Moshe and requested permission to permanently settle in the region east of the Jordan River, instead of settling in Eretz Yisrael along with the rest of the nation. Moshe initially reacted very angrily, censuring these tribes for choosing not to proceed into the land which G-d had promised to Beneh Yisrael. Reuben and Gad explained that they would lead Beneh Yisrael in conquering the Land of Israel, and only after the conquest was complete would they return home to their families across the river. Moshe then agreed to allow these tribes to settle the land.

The Midrash cites in reference to Reuben and Gad the verse in the Book of Mishleh (20:21) that speaks of a "Nahala Mebohelet" ("a frantic portion"). Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) explains that Reuben and Gad were wrong not for desiring the land east of the Jordan River, but rather for the joy and enthusiasm with which they sought it. Every person, Rav Dessler writes, must find the role that is suitable for him, and serve Hashem with what Hashem has given him. If a person has a good voice, he should be a hazzan; if somebody is blessed with wealth, he should give charity. Our job is to use the gifts Hashem has given us in the best possible way. Reuven and Gad, as they explained to Moshe, had large quantities of cattle, and the region east of the Jordan River was especially suitable for grazing. They thus realized that their place was there in that region. This was where they were supposed to be. Nevertheless, they were wrong for being so enthusiastic about remaining there and not settling in Eretz Yisrael. Even though this is what they were supposed to do, they should have exhibited some ambivalence, some discomfort, in settling outside the sacred land promised to Beneh Yisrael.

On this basis, we can perhaps understand the story told in the Book of Yehoshua (chapter 22) about these tribes. After spending fourteen years away from their families, joining the other tribes in capturing and distributing Eretz Yisrael, the men of Reuben and Gad were told by Yehoshua that they could now return home. Strangely, however, after we are told that the men returned home (Yehoshua 22:6), several verses later, the text says once again that they returned from Eretz Yisrael to their homes – implying that they left twice. The Midrash explains that Yehoshua escorted the men of Reuben and Gad to the Jordan River, and when they got there, the men realized that Yehoshua would be traveling back home alone. This would be very disrespectful – and so they all went back with Yehoshua, and stayed another night. The next day, they finally returned home to their families.

Imagine – after not seeing their families for fourteen years, they were on the border, about to be reunited with their wives and children, but they decided to go back for another night. We cannot even imagine how eager and excited they must have been to return home, but they delayed their return for one more day.

In light of Rav Dessler’s approach, we can perhaps understand why. Reuben and Gad’s was mistake was being too enthusiastic about settling outside Eretz Yisrael – and so their repentance was doing just the opposite, delaying their return home by one more day. When a person wishes to repent, to correct a character flaw, to reverse a mistake he made, he needs to focus on the root of the mistake. And thus Reuben and Gad reversed their excitement and enthusiasm to settle the region east of the Jordan River by delaying their return home by another day after fourteen years, and escorting Yehoshua rather than rushing to return to their families.

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