The Eastern Colonists


The children of Reuben and the children of Gad possessed much cattle; and they saw the land of Ya’zer and the land of Gilead, and behold, it was a land for pasture… And they said [to Moses]: “If we have found favor in your eyes, may this land be given to your servants for a possession—do not take us across the Jordan… We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our children.”

Numbers 32:1, 5, 16

They spoke first of their cattle, and only then of their children. Said Moses to them: Not so! Make the primary thing primary, and the secondary thing secondary.

Rashi to verse 16

In the writings of Chassidism, a question is asked about the nature of human nutrition: why does man derive his vitality from animals, plants and minerals? How is it that the highest life-form in the physical world can be sustained by these lowlier existences?

The Chassidic masters explain that the vital potential contained in the so-called “lower” tiers of creation is in fact loftier than man’s own vital force. At the heart of every being is a “spark of G-dliness” which gives it existence and imbues it with its particular qualities. And the “lowlier” a thing is, the loftier its spiritual core. When a wall collapses, the uppermost stones fall the furthest; similarly, in the “collapse” of the primordial world of tohu,[1] the loftiest sparks of the divine creative force fell farthest from their source and were incarnated within the most mundane creations.

To our eyes, man is the most spiritual of earthly creatures, the animal exhibits a more sophisticated vitality than the plant, and the mineral shows no outward signs of “life” at all. In essence, however, the sublimity of the spark of divine life in a thing is in converse relation to its manifest spirituality. Thus the mineral nourishes the vegetable, both nourish the animal, and all three sustain human life.

However, only man has the capacity to direct the vital energy in himself toward a G-dly end. For man alone has been granted the gift of free choice. The animal, vegetable or mineral cannot sin; their conformity with the divine will is automatic and inevitable, and thus devoid of moral significance. Only man can elect to do good; only man can, by the force of his deeds, transcend the creature state to achieve intimacy with the Divine.

So when man consumes the resources of the physical world, a bilateral transformation takes place. The slice of bread, piece of meat, or glass of water confer their superior vitality to the person, imparting to him a spiritual potential which he does not himself possess. At the same time, if the person utilizes this vitality to perform a mitzvah, a divine deed, he elevates the plant, animal or mineral he has consumed, releasing its vital soul from its mundane encasement and reuniting it with its divine source.

Moses Reconsiders

In the 32nd chapter of Numbers, the Torah describes how the Jewish tribes of Reuben and Gad came to settle the land east of the Jordan River.

The children of Israel were en route to the land of Canaan when they were attacked by the armies of Sichon and Og, whose domain lay on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Moses led the Israelites into battle, defeated the two kings and conquered their land. The tribes of Gad and Reuben, who owned much sheep and cattle, asked that they be given these territories, which were prime pastureland, in lieu of their allotment in the land of Canaan, which lay to the west of the Jordan.

Moses was extremely upset by their request. Forty years earlier, he reminded them, the people of Israel had been poised to enter the land of Canaan. But following a negative report by the spies sent to scout the land—they described it as a “land that consumes its settlers”[2]—the children of Israel spurned the land promised to their ancestors as the eternal heritage of Israel. G-d decreed that they remain in the desert for forty years, until that entire generation died out and a new generation, prepared to accept the gift and challenge of the Promised Land, arose. And now, said Moses to the Reubenites and the Gadites, you are repeating the sin of the Spies—a sin which condemned an entire generation and stopped Jewish history in its tracks for forty years. Like your parents before you, you are declining to take possession of the land deeded to you by divine decree.

How did the two tribes respond to this accusation? They assured Moses that they planned to settle and develop the land east of the Jordan, building “sheepfolds for our flocks and cities for our children.” They also promised that they would enter the land of Canaan together with the other tribes of Israel and aid them in its conquest; indeed, they would march at the head of the army and bear the brunt of the battle. Only after the land west of the Jordan had been conquered and settled by the other tribes would they return to the lands allotted them in the east.

But how does any of this answer Moses’ complaint to them? While perhaps a fitting response to Moses’ opening words (“Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here?”), it doesn’t seem to address the main point of Moses’ critisicm—that, like an earlier generation of Jews, they were spurning the divine mission to settle the land of Canaan. Surprisingly, however, Moses accepted their proposal and gave them the territories which they requested. He even arranged, at his own initiative, that half of the tribe of Manasseh should join the tribes of Reuben and Gad in settling the lands east of the Jordan.

Why this dramatic shift in Moses’ view on the Jewish settlement of the eastern territories? If the two tribes’ petition initially struck him as reminiscent of the sin of the Spies, what convinced him to endorse their plan and even expand on it?

A Shepherd’s Insight

Chassidic teaching explains the sin of the Spies as resulting from their reluctance to involve themselves with the mundanities of material life. The Jews in the desert led a wholly spiritual existence: manna from heaven sustained them, miraculous water from the “well of Miriam” slaked their thirst, and the “clouds of glory” protected them and preserved their clothes. But they knew that once they crossed into the land of Canaan the manna would cease, and they would be required to till the soil and grow natural grain; the “well of Miriam” would leave them, and they would be required to dig wells and cisterns; the clouds of glory would evaporate, and they would be required to weave cloth, tan hides and raise an army to defend their borders. Their spiritual commune would be replaced by a state of farmers, artisans, merchants and bureaucrats.

They wanted no part of that. Never mind that the material existence contains sparks of divine energy far loftier than anything their own spiritual lives could actualize; never mind that a symbiotic relationship with the land could unleash the most potent potentials invested by G-d in His creation. The risks were simply too great. “It is a land that consumes its settlers!” How could they be sure that once they involved themselves with the land, they would not be overwhelmed by its corporeality? How could they know whether they would indeed exploit its lofty potential and not instead sink into the morass of material life?

But unlike the generation of the Spies, it was not the dread of the material that drove the tribes of Gad and Reuben to ask for the territories east of the Jordan. On the contrary: they wanted to settle this land, to build cities and ranches, to raise their sheep and cattle on its pastures. Their plea, “Do not take us across the Jordan” did not express a reluctance to seek out the “sparks” buried in the land, but an attraction to even more remote—and thus even loftier—pinpoints of divine energy.

After all, the land west of the Jordan, though material, was the “Holy Land”—a land where even the most mundane pursuits are tinged with a spiritual glow. Outside of the Holy Land, the physical world is more lowly, and thus contains sparks that derive from an even higher source. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were convinced that their mission in life was to pursue, extract and elevate the sparks inherent in this more spiritually distant  corner of creation.

So they said to Moses: “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle and cities for our children.” You accuse us of emulating our fathers by shunning the land; but what we desire is the very opposite of disinvolvement from the material resources of G-d’s world. We wish to engage in the development of an even more mundane domain—the territories that lie beyond the borders of the most sacred of lands as defined by our present mandate from G-d.[3]

This is why the Reubenites and the Gadites spoke first of the corrals they would construct for their flocks, and only then of the cities they would build for their children. Would it not have been more appropriate (as Moses indeed points out to them) to speak of the human beings under their care before their animals? But this, too, was in keeping with the nature of their petition to Moses. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were motivated by the knowledge that the most sublime deposits of divine energy are buried in the lowliest of places—an insight they gained from their vocation as shepherds, in which they recognized that the spark of divine life in the animal hails from a loftier place than that of the human being.[4]

The Dynamics of Need

But simply recognizing the lofty potential in a lowly place is not enough. Not every soul can venture to any place with a mind to extracting the sparks of divinity enmeshed therein. G-d Himself delineated the limits of our capacity to sublimate the material, by decreeing, in His Torah, the 365 prohibitions which proscribe all involvement with those substances, resources and experiences that are beyond our ability to redeem. Even in the realm of the permissible, one must employ great caution as to where one treads to ensure that one is indeed capable of extracting a divine potential without falling prey to its corporeal embodiment.

The Spies were wrong to doubt their ability to develop the land of Canaan. G-d had explicitly charged them with that mission, and G-d certainly knows the limits and the capacities of each of His creatures. But the territories desired by the tribes of Reuben and Gad were not part of the divine mandate to settle the land; how, then, could they know that they were equal to the challenge of this spiritually remote domain?

The first rule of material life (after distinguishing between the permissible and the forbidden) is to distinguish between the necessary and the superfluous. If a certain material resource represents a critical need for a person, he can assume that he is capable of exploiting its G-dly potential; for if divine providence has so ordered a person’s life as to make necessary his involvement with a particular thing, G-d has also provided him with whatever it takes to properly deal with it.[5] On the other hand, when something is a luxury, serving to enhance rather than support life, a person must be especially wary of involvement, lest he be consumed and coarsened by that which he is attempting to consume and sublimate.

Thus the people of Reuben and Gad said to Moses: “The land which G-d has vanquished before the congregation of Israel is land for cattle-grazing, and your servants have cattle.”[6] Divine providence has dictated that we earn our living by raising cattle, making this land perfectly suited to our material needs; we are therefore confident that we possess the capacity to properly develop it and exploit its lofty potential.

Spiritual Training

But even after a person has identified a particular corner of the material world as his to develop, he must first “prove himself” by constructively relating to its more refined areas of creation.

This is the deeper significance of “education”: before a human being is thrust into a coarse and mundane world, he is placed within a spiritual environment of ideas and values, so that even when he ventures forth into material life, his primary point of reference remains spiritual. This is why Israel’s entry into the land had to be preceded by a period of spiritual existence in the desert.

And before the tribes of Reuben and Gad could settle the land east of the Jordan, they had to participate in the conquest of the holier land to its west. Indeed, because of the greater challenge posed by the eastern territories, their commitment to the Holy Land had to exceed even that of the tribes that were to settle in the west. Only after they had fought in the frontlines of the battles for the Holy Land and aided their brethren in settling it, could they be certain of their ability to take on the challenge of a more mundane land and unearth its lofty potential.

Based on an entry in the Rebbe’s journal, dated “Mattot, Vichy”[7]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. The teachings of Kabbalah describe G-d’s creation of the world as consisting of two phases. First came the world of tohu (“chaos”), a world in which the divine energy was so potent that it burst the very parameters (“vessels”) that were to contain and define it. Upon the ruins of this collapsed world, G-d created our present world—the world of tikkun(“correction”)—in which a much-reduced flow of divine energy is contained and obscured by many cumbersome “vessels.” Our mission in life is to combine the best of both worlds: to unearth the potent sparks of divine light buried in the debris of tohu’s shattered vessels (i.e., the material world) and give them constructive definition and expression in the abundant vessels of tikkun.

[2]. Numbers 13:32.

[3]. The eastern bank of the Jordan is part of the “land of ten nations” promised to Abraham—a promise which will be fully realized only in the era of Moshiach. In Moses’ day, the mandate to conquer and settle the Holy Land included only the “land of seven nations” west of the Jordan.

[4]. Moses, on the other hand, did not anticipate any need to settle these lands, believing that the divine energy trapped in the physical world outside of the Holy Land could be elevated by intense spiritual activity within the Holy Land—as sparks gravitate from afar toward a great fire. For an examination of these two methods of extracting the “sparks of G-dliness” in the material world—through direct engagement, or by creating a “great fire” that draws them from afar—see The Price of Knowledge, WIR, vol. VIII, no. 5.

[5]. Again, it must be emphasized that this rule applies only to things permitted by Torah law. With regard to prohibited substances or deeds, any perceived “need” is obviously illusory, since G-d does not compel man to act contrary to His explicitly expressed will.

[6]. Numbers 32:4.

[7]. Reshimot #51. The Rebbe was in Vichy, France, for several months in 1940 after fleeing Paris from the advancing Germans.


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