Earning Our Privilege

Dena Weiss

Parashat Mattot-Masei

The journey into the land of Israel was plagued by setbacks. Fear and frustration, the threat of drought or famine even led our ancestors to want to return to Egypt. But in this week’s parashah, the destination is finally within reach and concrete plans are made to enter into the land of Canaan. However, not everyone is prepared to live in the promised land. The tribes of Gad and Reuven1 make a controversial request. They ask Moshe if they can give up their inheritance in the land of Canaan, and settle instead in the lush pastures East of the Jordan river. They ask for these lands not out of fear or privation, but out of a desire for wealth. They say that they are too populous, both in children and cattle, to go into Canaan and share this small land with the other tribes. The tribes of Gad and Reuven are paradigms of good fortune. The way that they present their request and the way that Moshe responds to it teaches us important lessons in how to manage and relate to our own privilege, to an inheritance that we have received. We can gain insight from this story into what it means to appreciate both our physical and spiritual advantages, and learn how to navigate its complexities wisely and morally.

When Moshe first hears the request, he is furious and accuses these tribes of repeating the sin of the spies2 in trying to dissuade the people from entering the land. So the tribes of Reuven and Gad come to Moshe with a counter-offer, which Moshe reluctantly accepts:

במדבר לב:טז-יח,כ,כב-כג
וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ:וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם הֲבִיאֹנֻם אֶל מְקוֹמָם וְיָשַׁב טַפֵּנוּ בְּעָרֵי הַמִּבְצָר מִפְּנֵי יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ: לֹא נָשׁוּב אֶל בָּתֵּינוּ עַד הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ נַחֲלָתוֹ:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה אִם תַּעֲשׂוּן אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אִם תֵּחָלְצוּ לִפְנֵי ה' לַמִּלְחָמָה:... וְנִכְבְּשָׁה הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי ה' וְאַחַר תָּשֻׁבוּ וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּם מֵה' וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיְתָה הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה לִפְנֵי ה': וְאִם לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן הִנֵּה חֲטָאתֶם לַה' וּדְעוּ חַטַּאתְכֶם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶתְכֶם:


BeMidbar 32:16-18, 20, 22-23
They approached him and said, “Let us build pens for our cattle here and cities for our children. And we will go as a vanguard before Benei Yisrael until we have brought them to their place as our children will stay in cities fortified against the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until each man of Benei Yisrael has inherited his inheritance…”
Moshe said to them, “If you do this and go as a vanguard to war before God and the land is conquered before God, then afterwards you can settle…. And you will be clean from the perspective of God and Israel and this land will be your possession before God. However, if you do not do so you will sin to God and you will know your sin when it finds you.”


Moshe acquiesces to the offer that the tribes help conquer the land, even though they will not inherit it, because their willingness to fight in the war demonstrates their faith that this land and its inhabitants can, indeed, be vanquished. Moshe accepts this condition, but backs it up with a clear threat that if they refuse to go to war then they will have sinned against God. Moshe then relays the agreement that he and Gad and Reuven have arrived at to the new leaders of Benei Yisrael, Yehoshua and Elazar. However, when he does so he makes no mention of sin being the consequence of not upholding the agreement. And the penalty he does set for violating the agreement does not even appear to be much of a penalty at all! He says,

במדבר לב:ל
וְאִם לֹא יַעַבְרוּ חֲלוּצִים אִתְּכֶם וְנֹאחֲזוּ בְתֹכְכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן:


BeMidbar 32:30
If they don’t go as pioneers with you then they will inherit among you in the land of Canaan.


This penalty is not much of a threat. In fact, it seems to be a total win-win for the tribes of Gad and Reuven! If they go to war, then they will get the land of their choosing and be permitted to settle with their abundant families East of the Jordan. If they refuse to go to war, then the offending tribes will still get to keep an inheritance in the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land always in God’s sight.3 It appears that they will not lose anything at all should they decide not to go to war. If they don’t fight then they will still get what everyone else receives, their ancestral inheritance in Canaan. There is no risk to them at all.

There is another, more subtle, curiosity embedded in this exchange. Though receiving their inheritance in the land of Canaan is phrased as a consequence for the tribes who want to settle outside of the land of Canaan, it also has a serious and lasting financial effect on the remaining tribes. There is a significant economic advantage to the rest of the tribes of Israel if Reuven and Gad settle outside of the land of Canaan. If two tribes forfeit their portion of the land then it follows that the other ten tribes stand to see an increase in their own properties! Canaan will now be divided into ten plots as opposed to twelve. Why, if the other tribes stand to profit by this arrangement, is that interest not represented in the negotiations between Moshe and the two tribes?

A closer look at the way in which the land was distributed may give us a sense of why this calculus is omitted. Perhaps the other tribes do not stand to benefit if Reuven and Gad do not settle in the land! Perhaps a divine inheritance operates differently than a standard transaction.

במדבר לג:נד
וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ בְּגוֹרָל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם לָרַב תַּרְבּוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ וְלַמְעַט תַּמְעִיט אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ אֶל אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לוֹ שָׁמָּה הַגּוֹרָל לוֹ יִהְיֶה לְמַטּוֹת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְנֶחָלוּ.


BeMidbar 33:54
Distribute the land by lottery, according to your families. To a larger group give a larger inheritance and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lottery will be theirs. Distribute it according to the tribes of your fathers.


Rashi on this verse explains that the distribution of the land was not a straightforward division by area, but rather a qualitative division based on the characteristics of the land, of how and what the land produces. The parcels were distributed based on value, not based on size:

ולא נתחלקה הארץ במידה, לפי שיש גבול משובח מחברו, אלא בשומא, בית כור רע כנגד בית סאה טוב, הכל לפי הדמים:

The land was not divided by its dimensions, because there are some areas that are better than others, rather [it was divided] based on valuation. A beit kor (approx. 75,000 amot squared) of bad land [was considered equivalent] to a beit se’ah (approx. 2,500 amot squared) of good land. It was all according to qualitative value.


Rashi explains that the land was distributed on the basis of its quality, which was determined by yield, rather than by size. This fact holds the key to understanding why the distribution of the land into tenths or into twelfths was immaterial. A smaller piece of land isn’t less valuable than a larger plot if the smaller plot is more productive. And according to the Torah, what the land produces is calibrated by God and natural forces. This is what the Torah means when it calls Canaan a land in God’s gaze from the beginning of the year to its conclusion.4 God determines rainfall based on the people’s merit. From the perspective of heaven, even though the area allotted to each tribe may increase with fewer tribes in the land or decrease with more tribes in the land, the value of each portion need not be impacted. God can ensure that the value of each tribe’s inheritance remains the same.

The matching of the land to each tribe was done through a lottery, through divine communication, Whatever falls to them by lottery will be theirs, אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לוֹ שָׁמָּה הַגּוֹרָל לוֹ יִהְיֶה. God decides which area of the land belongs to each tribe and thereby determines how much the inheritance is worth. Should Reuven and Gad not enter the land, there is no increase to the holdings of their brothers. Just as Reuven and Gad do not lose their inheritance, Shimon and Asher do not absorb it. No brother benefits from his brother’s loss.

This teaches us what an inheritance is, what it means to have land that truly belongs to you, as opposed to land that you happen to live upon or even hold a title to. A true inheritance is something that you own fully and irrevocably. An inheritance is yours before you receive it and an inheritance is still yours even if it is sold. In the land of Israel this is expressed concretely in the laws of yovel when all land that has been sold reverts back to its original owners.5 Every fifty years, the illusion that I can sell what is rightfully mine and that you can own something that doesn’t truly belong to you is shattered, and ancestral plots return to their rightful owners. Every fifty years, God presses the reset button, and the relationship between the property itself and the one who holds valid and perpetual rights to it is restored.

In fact, the language used to describe the proportional bequest of the land is, To a larger group give a larger inheritance and to a smaller group a smaller one לָרַב תַּרְבּוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ וְלַמְעַט תַּמְעִיט אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ. And the purchase of land after the yovel contains similar language:

ויקרא כה:טו-טז
בְּמִסְפַּר שָׁנִים אַחַר הַיּוֹבֵל, תִּקְנֶה מֵאֵת עֲמִיתֶךָ בְּמִסְפַּר שְׁנֵי תְבוּאֹת יִמְכָּר לָךְ. לְפִי רֹב הַשָּׁנִים, תַּרְבֶּה מִקְנָתוֹ, וּלְפִי מְעֹט הַשָּׁנִים, תַּמְעִיט מִקְנָתוֹ: כִּי מִסְפַּר תְּבוּאֹת, הוּא מֹכֵר לָךְ.


VaYikra 25:15-16
By count of years after the yovel, you can buy from your fellow, and by count of crop years he will sell to you. When the years are many, you increase its price, and when the years are few, you decrease the price. For he is selling you a count of crops.


The paradigm for this rule of automatic adjustment by the Divine, of God’s making sure that you get no less and no more than you deserve is, of course, the man. There this same language of proportion, rav and me’at, appears:

שמות טז:טז-יח
זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה', לִקְטוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ עֹמֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת מִסְפַּר נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אִישׁ לַאֲשֶׁר בְּאָהֳלוֹ תִּקָּחוּ. וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּלְקְטוּ הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט. וַיָּמֹדּוּ בָעֹמֶר וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר אִישׁ לְפִי-אָכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ.


Shemot 16:16-18
This is what God has commanded: ‘Each person is to gather as much as he will eat. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’ Benei Yisrael did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have extra, and the one who gathered little did not lack. Each person gathered just as much as he would eat.


The bread of God, like the land of God, is allotted to each person. Taking more will not increase what you have and taking less will not decrease what you receive. You may be under the impression that you are taking more or less but, in fact, you are always collecting the same amount: you are always collecting exactly a single omer, exactly what you need. But there is still an important reason to collect just one omer, even if the amount will be miraculously adjusted later. There is a risk in not paying adequate attention to the process. For when you try to collect more, the omer seems like less than you deserve, less than what you have worked for. And when you try to collect less, you are surprised and ashamed to find that you have more than you deserve, more than you have rightfully achieved. But when you look at your own capacities and see the measure of your own need you will set out to collect an omer and be satisfied and happy when it is an omer that you receive. You will not feel hungry and you will not feel overly full. יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ When you eat from the labor of your hands, it is good for you and you are deserving of praise (Tehillim 128:2).

Gad and Reuven do not give up their proper inheritance if they refuse to fight because that inheritance cannot be lost. They can choose not to claim it, but they cannot forfeit their right to it. However, Gad and Reuven did choose to actively relinquish their inheritance and, in doing so, they divested themselves twice. First, they were compelled to fight to acquire land that they will not themselves inhabit, and then they chose to live on a land that they will never truly own, that is not their patrimony, that has not been selected for them by God. The tribes of Gad and Reuven decided to exile themselves, to cut themselves off from what truly belonged to them. They decided to be tenants when they could have been landholders. They did not know the value of holding on to one’s inheritance.

Similarly, your inheritance is yours. You have only one choice: you can accept it or you can reject it. And when you do accept it, you should work hard to become worthy of it. We are all privileged in certain ways, some of us have inherited talents, some of us traditions, some of us have inherited property or access to wealth. This parashah teaches us that it is a mistake to reject our privilege. There is no value in feeling guilty or ashamed of what you possess. In fact, you are required to acknowledge what you have and not take it for granted. The best way to do that, is by using it well. You can retroactively become worthy of what you have received for free. The Torah calls on you to accept what you have, to be satisfied with it, to be grateful for it, and then, to earn it. You do not receive the gift because you deserve it, however, once you have received the gift, you must endeavor to become deserving. You may not allow your privilege to be wasted on you.

And of course, our greatest inheritance is not physical or even genetic. God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people, our most significant morashah is the Torah. The Torah is yours whether or not you choose to make it so. The Torah is yours irrevocably. How foolish to not work on owning it truly and completely. We are called on to appreciate what we have received and challenged to make ourselves truly worthy of it. The perfection of the Torah is that not only is it the gift we most want to merit, it is designed to teach us and make us worthy of receiving it.

1 Though in the end, half of the tribe of Menashe joins Gad and Reuven on the opposite bank of the Jordan, only Gad and Reuven make the initial request. See BeMidbar 32:1-2.

2 See BeMidbar 32:6-16. For the story of the spies see BeMidbar 13 and 14.

3 Cf Devarim 11:9, 12.

4 Devarim 11:12.

5 See VaYikra 25.