May 30, 2024
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Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad Help Rewrite Our Narrative

Editing Our History

One of the Torah’s most empowering ideas is that we are not condemned to repeat past mistakes. While our parents’ mistakes and even our ancestors’ missteps undoubtedly impact us, the Torah facilitates our taking a different and better path. Hashem even allows us to “edit” our history through tikkun, correcting our ancestors’ sins.

 

An Example of Tikkun—Megillat Esther

A classic example of tikkun is the thrice mentioned refraining from taking from the booty in our war against Haman’s supporters (Esther, perek 8). In this case, Shaul HaMelech’s descendants, Mordechai and Esther, correct their ancestor’s mistake of taking booty from the war he waged against Amalek.

 

Rewriting Reuven and Gad’s Narrative

Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad episode in sefer Devarim (3:12-20) very differently than what Bamidbar, perek 32 records. Moshe Rabbeinu states that he instructed Bnei Reuven and Gad to serve as front-line soldiers in the wars to conquer Eretz Yisrael from the seven nations. Only after the conquest is complete may they return to their nachala (land portion) on the east side of the Jordan (the Ever HaYarden).

Reuven and Gad’s request for a portion (nachala) in the Ever HaYarden is entirely omitted. Moshe Rabbeinu does not mention his horrified reaction to their request, fearing a repeat of the meraglim debacle. Instead, Moshe Rabbeinu focuses only on their obligations to serve on the front lines. He omits the condition that they serve as the army’s vanguard in exchange for receiving their nachala in the Ever HaYarden.

To resolve these problems, we clarify that Moshe Rabbeinu does not rewrite history. After all, he does not edit sefer Bamidbar or remove it from the Torah. Rather, he offers perspective and a new perception of the Bnei Reuven and Gad episode. Moshe Rabbeinu set a very high bar when demanding these two tribes take the lead in wresting control of Eretz Yisrael. The risks to front-line soldiers are always considerable, but even more so, when attacking walled cities.

The surrounding army conquered such entities by sending soldiers to scale the walls and invade the city. The front line of soldiers climbing the wall would likely die due to exceptional vulnerability. Despite this extraordinary risk, Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad unflinchingly agreed to Moshe Rabbeinu’s demand.

Bnei Reuven and Gad’s consent to serve on the front-line corrected the problematic demand for a nachala east of the Jordan. Instead of imitating the meraglim’s refusal to enter Eretz Yisrael, they reversed the meraglim’s fear of conquering walled cities (Devarim 1:25) by unhesitatingly embracing the challenge of seizing walled areas.

Moshe Rabbeinu takes this positive response as an opportunity to rewrite Bnei Reuven and Gad’s narrative. Since they performed a tikkun on the earlier mistake, their history has been “edited.” Their new narrative is that Moshe Rabbeinu assigned them their new land and that they must serve on the front-line in our invasion of Eretz Yisrael.

 

Rewriting Bnei Yisrael’s Narrative

The specter of the cheit meraglim (the sin of the spies) loomed large over our ancestors as they stood weeks ago from their scheduled move west of the Yarden. The prior generation’s failure struck terror in their hearts. This fear of repeating the meraglim debacle animates Moshe Rabbeinu in his initial speech of sefer Meraglim. It is no coincidence that Moshe Rabbeinu addresses the cheit meraglim before any other episode (except for the appointment of the Shofetim, which we discussed in an earlier chapter).

Moshe Rabbeinu immediately confronts the “elephant in the room.” First, he recounts the story noting its fundamental failures. Then, he shows us how to correct these mistakes that led to horrific results.

Moreover, Moshe Rabbeinu encourages us by telling us that our narrative regarding the cheit meraglim has been rewritten. Since that terrible incident, we defeated two extraordinarily mighty foes, Sichon and Og. Furthermore, Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad have openly changed course from the meraglim and are eager to go into battle west of Jordan. Finally, as recorded in Devarim, perek 2, Moshe Rabbeinu emphasizes that we even corrected the sin of the ma’apilim (attacking when Hashem said not to do so) by refraining from attacking Edom, Moav and Ammon when Hashem instructed us not to fight these nations.

Moshe Rabbeinu empowers us by telling us we are not doomed to repeat the cheit meraglim. Instead, he encourages us to shift our focus from the cheit meraglim to our significant accomplishments since that time. Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu concludes (Devarim 3:22) by telling his soon-to-be successor Yehoshua and us, “lo tiraum—do not fear them (Canaan’s seven nations).” Hashem is with us, and just as He facilitated our miraculous conquest of Sichon and Og, He will ensure our victory over Canaan despite their superior size and might.

 

Conclusion: We Are Not Trapped by Our Individual and/or Collective Pasts

Our individual and family histories have a great impact. For example, I chose to become a rabbi to a great extent because I stem from a long line of rabbanim dating to Rashi, the Rama and the Shach. Yet, on the other hand, I heard someone tell his rabbi that his grandfather talks during tefillah, his father talks during tefillah and he unabashedly continues this “legacy” of talking during tefillah and will not relent. Similarly, children of abusive parents often continue their parents’ awful behavior.

While parents and grandparents must exercise great caution and avoid setting terrible precedents, the Torah empowers those with less-than-stellar legacies to correct them. After Moshe Rabbeinu’s death, we conquered Eretz Yisrael almost without a hitch. We set a model of correcting a past sin, fully following the guidance Moshe Rabbeinu masterfully sets forth in sefer Devarim (as we noted—at length—in our earlier discussion of the haftarah of parshat Shelach regarding the meraglim Yehoshua sent to spy on Yericho).

Examples abound in sefer Devarim, sefer Yehoshua and Megillat Esther of later generations, rewriting their forbearers’ negative narratives. Moshe Rabbeinu shows how Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad rewrote their tribes’ narrative, changing our people’s legacy. There is no excuse for failure. We can edit the past and forge a vastly-improved future.


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 16 books may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.

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