Moshe had been the consummate conciliator for the past 40 years. From the sin of the Golden Calf when he appeased Hashem through the many ordeals throughout the 40-year desert sojourn, he is constantly an advocate for the wishes of his nation. This week, however, Moshe he reacts totally different to what appears to be a simple requisition.
The children of Gad and Reuvain come to Moshe with a simple request. They are shepherds and do not want to cross the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan. They claim that the land on the east bank of the river is better for grazing. Before they even get a chance to fully present their request, Moshe releases a virtual tirade at them. For eleven verses, more than any single rebuke in the entire Torah, Moshe chastises them. He says that their request is subversive and will dissuade others from crossing the Jordan. He relives the fateful episode of the spies and their slander of the Land of Israel. He recounts the wrath of Hashem and details the suffering of Israel because of that sin. He compares the representatives who requested to remain to those terrible men, and claims that Gad and Reuvain “have risen in their place to add more burning wrath of Hashem against Israel” (Numbers: 32:6-16)
It is extremely difficult to comprehend why Moshe, normally so conciliatory, patient, and understanding, even during the most difficult of times, became so sharply incensed at this request. Obviously, Moshe’s actions are a lesson to all of us. What is it?
David was driving to the Catskills for Shabbos but set out from his Manhattan office with hardly enough time to make the trip and arrive before sundown. Traffic was backed up on the Major Deegan and crossing the Hudson via the George Washington Bridge seemed an almost impossible task. Mid-span, after sitting nearly an hour in stop-and-go traffic, he realized that the red orb in the sky was about to sink below the horizon. He had never desecrated the Shabbos before and traffic on the George Washington Bridge was not going to make him violate the Sabbath now. In a panic, he pulled his car as close as he could to the guard rail, left the keys on the visor, removed his wallet and hid it together his personal effects and hoped for the best. At worst, the car would be stolen. Maybe the police would get to it first and tow it.
Feeling a little guilty about adding to the traffic delays on the bridge, David left his car, flashers blinking, and walked back toward New York City where he decided to spend the Shabbos at a friend who lived in nearby Washington Heights.
Saturday night he returned to the bridge and his car was nowhere to be seen. He went straight to the police station and asked for the desk officer. “Did anyone see the gray Honda that was on the George Washington Bridge on Friday night?”
The officers eyes widened. “You mean the car with the keys on the visor?”
“Franky, get over here,” the cop yelled to his friend,” listened to this!” By now a couple of officers moved closer to David.
The sergeant raised his voice. “You mean the Honda with the flashers on?” Again David nodded, this time more nervously. You mean the Honda with the wallet with close to $500 dollars left under the front seat!” he shouted. “Was that your car!?” David shook his head meekly. “Yes, officer, that’s my car. Where is it?”
“Where is it??” mocked the officer, “Where is it? Do you know how many divers we have looking for your body in the Hudson!?”
Moshe understood that the worst of all sins is not what one does privately in his heart or in his home but rather when his actions affect the spirit of others. Often, one’s self-interest mires any thought of how his conduct will affect others. The children of Gad and Reuvain had a personal issue. They did not want to cross the Jordan River because they wanted to graze in greener pastures. Yet they did not consider what effect their request might have on an entire nation. They did not take into account the severe ramifications their actions may have on the morale of hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic people wanting to enter the Holy Land.
In our lives, at home and at work, not everything that we do, say or act upon may be interpreted with the intent that motivated the action. And sometimes those misinterpretation can have devastating effects on morale, attitude and feeling. We may refuse to cross a river for a matter of convenience. Others, however, may see it as a calamity. Our job is to be conscious that everything we do affects not only ourselves, but is a bridge to many other people.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
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Books by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky: