In this week’s sedra of Matot, the tribes of Reuven & Gad (later accompanied by half the tribe of Menashe) petition Moshe to live east of the Jordan, somewhat separated from the bulk of the nation. Moshe reluctantly approves their request – indeed, some commentators explain that these tribes actually wanted to be situated close to Moshe’s burial place! – but adds one major proviso: they must assist the rest of the nation by fighting alongside them in the conquest of Israel. They agree to do so.
In next week’s sedra of Masei, Hashem designates 6 cities of refuge to be built, places where involuntary manslaughterers can go to escape vengeance from the victims’ next of kin. 3 of these cities were to be in Israel proper, 3 were to be across the river in Trans-Jordan. The Gemara in Makot asks the obvious question: Why was it necessary to create as many refuge cities in trans-Jordan as in Israel, when there are only a quarter of as many tribes on the east bank? To this, the Talmud answers that murder was more prevalent on the east side of the Jordan than on the west side.
This needs some exploration. What was it that caused there to be more violence among the Jews in one area than in another? Were Reuven & Gad more violent people by nature? If so, where is there any indication of this?
Now, we might want to suggest that since these 2 ½ tribes chose to live apart from their fellow Jews, that indicated a basic flaw in their moral character & perhaps this is what accounted for their violent tendencies. But, in fact, not only did R,G & M cross the Jordan in order to fight alongside their brothers for 7 years, they actually stayed after the war for 7 more years until all the land had been settled. This was quite commendable, & should have earned them merit!
But as noble as their actions may have been, the stark reality is that they were away from their families for 14 years; their children grew up without a father figure in the house to help guide them & mold their character. And without that crucial "home schooling," the children lacked a strong sense of discipline, which later would be manifested in an increased prevalence for violence.
Of course, the murders we are speaking of here were not cold-blooded or premeditated; they were involuntary & accidental. But they nevertheless stemmed from a failure to fully appreciate the preciousness of life & the need to behave in a way that safeguarded the other person’s welfare, the need to carefully watch out for our neighbor’s good as zealously as we watch out for our own well-being.
This vital life-lesson of being concerned for all of society, and not only ourselves, is best transmitted by a stable, well-adjusted, cohesive family unit, something that sadly was lacking in this province. It is a model that is no less crucial to us today than it was then – perhaps, even more so.