Jordan, the biblical land of Gilead.
Jordan, the biblical land of Gilead. Photo by Wikipedia
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The Land of Israel is the final destination of the Israelites' journey through the desert. Their desire to reach it preoccupies them as they wander in the wilderness - it is the fuel that drives them in this decades-long trip. They do not know what the land looks like; they can only imagine the place where the stories of the patriarchs took place and where the lives of their descendants will unfold. A land of longings and hope, it is not a land of the present.

The transition from wandering to life in the Land of Israel demands physical boundaries delineating the exact site where the journey ends and the land begins. But the latter is described not as a concrete space with borders, rather as an almost metaphysical space, referred to in enticing language: "and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8 ). The soil of the Land of Israel will bring forth its bounty, but what will be the land's borders? Where will the geographical wonder take place - i.e., where is the point at which the Israelites will stop "journeying to" and begin "living in"?

This will be a drama involving physical expanses and territory, bestowed upon the Israelites as their eternal inheritance, but the metamorphosis they undergo will be a mental one - a transition from a feeling of wandering to a feeling of being home. However, in this week's double Torah reading, Parashot Matot-Massei, when the Israelites reach the Land of Gilead on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, the "children of Reuben and the children of Gad" see the path of the journey ahead, "And they said: 'If we have found favor in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan'" (Numbers 32:5 ).

This is a slap in Moses' face. In one brief instant, the ethos he worked so hard to inculcate into the minds of the Israelites since the events of the Book of Exodus vanishes. The metamorphosis occurs in their hearts even before he has declared where the boundaries of the land will be. The children of Gad and Reuben are creating a boundary between wandering and arrival - to define the Land of Israel's borders and envision themselves within them.

Their request stuns Moses and in response, he "said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: 'Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall ye sit here? And wherefore will ye turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord hath given them? Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up unto the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, they turned away the heart of the children of Israel that they should not go into the land which the Lord had given them ... And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers' stead, a brood of sinful men, to augment yet the fierce anger of the Lord toward Israel'" Num. 32: 6-14 ).

Moses first comes up with a concrete question: Do the children of Gad and Reuben intend to exempt themselves from participating in the wars of conquest the Israelites will be forced to wage after they cross the Jordan River? But afterward he offers a radical interpretation of his people's request. Indeed, in Moses' view, the very fact of making the request "reenacts" the sin committed by 10 of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land. The 12 were dispatched to help bridge the gap between the mental image of the Land of Israel and the actual land itself. They returned, bearing the fruits of the land so as to demonstrate its concreteness. That demonstration, accompanied by their subjective reactions to seeing the land, distracted the Israelites from pursuing the goal of their journey, and caused them either to want to die in the desert or return to Egypt.

Moses interprets the request made by the children of Gad and Reuben as being along those same lines. According to him, the perception of the path as being the goal is intended to turn the Israelites away from that goal, and to make them despair of ever reaching it. After all, if there is a bountiful land here, right under their very feet, what is the point of continuing the journey?

A mental battle is thus being waged over the motivation that is driving the Israelites forward in their journey - or rather, as the Bible describes it, over the attempt to turn them away from their goal. Like the spies who made the Israelites clamor to return to Egypt, the children of Gad and Reuben could persuade them to stay right where they are. Why go home when home can be right here?

The response this time can be divided into two parts. In the first, the people respond to Moses' query with the declaration that they do not intend to exempt themselves from the battle over Canaan. They will join the other tribes in that effort, fight shoulder to shoulder with them and then return; in essence, they will solve the "moral" quandary with their actions. However, Moses' criticism is focused less on the moral issue at hand and more on the radical change in the rationale for making the journey. In the second part of their response, the children of Gad and Reuben explain their position in a simple, but stunning, statement: "For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, and forward, because our inheritance is fallen to us [literally: came to us] on this side of the Jordan eastward" (Num. 32:19 ).

Throughout the journey, we walked toward our inheritance, which was static and distant and located after the "finish line." We responded to it by journeying toward it, through the desert. Now the tables are turned. Instead of people proceeding toward the Land of Israel, it is walking toward them, as it were.

In the Bible, the verb lavo generally means "to go into," as in God's famous commandment to Moses, "Go in unto Pharaoh" (Exod. 10:1 ). Here, the children of Gad and Reuben declare that their "inheritance is fallen to" them - that it has come to them. Thus, we are not entering the Land of Israel; it is entering us.

The children of Gad and Reuben report to Moses that a mental metamorphosis has already occurred in their minds: Their inheritance has entered them and they realize immediately that they have found their home. The way they see the Land of Israel, as expressed in their words, is a radical interpretation of the ethos of the journey as Moses articulated it ever since the Exodus from Egypt.

The Israelites do not need to enter Canaan: To the contrary, Canaan must enter them. The children of Gad and Reuben realize that the objective of the journey is mental, not geographic, and they report having reached it. They understand the depth of the process Moses has been trying to get the Israelites to submit to. In the final role, every move intended to generate a mental metamorphosis is indeed anarchic, which causes an inner change in the individual and cannot be controlled by the leader. The children of Gad and Reuben are using Moses' tool in an independent way; they are using it against him. What can Moses do? He can only acknowledge that they are speaking the truth and agree.