The children of G-d and the children of Reuben came and spoke to Elazar the Kohen, and to the leaders of the assembly, saying, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Sebam, Nebo, and Beon. The Land that Hashem smote before the assembly of Israel — it is a land for flocks, and your servants have flocks” (Bamidbar 32:2-4).
Both the request of bnei Gad and bnei Reuven for land on the eastern side of the Jordan and Moshe’s response are very difficult to understand for a variety of reasons. They presented their request in a strange order. First they presented Moshe with a list of cities. Then they added that the land was good pasture and they had large flocks. This is followed by a parashah stumah (a closed paragraph), as if that particular topic was done and a new one begun. Only after this break do they request openly what was seemingly on their minds from the beginning: “Give us this land and permit us to stay on this side of the Jordan” (Bamidbar 42:5). They should have first made their request, explained it, and only then presented a list of cities.
Moshe’s response also defies understanding. First, he appeared to assume that they were afraid to enter Eretz Yisrael like the spies. There is seemingly no attempt to judge them favorably; they are simply accused without any probing of their motivations.
Only when they offered to leave their wives, children and cattle in fortified cities in Transjordan, did Moshe accept their offer. This, too, is puzzling in light of the fact that the principal fear of the spies was that their wives and children would die in the conquest of the Land, and now bnei Gad and bnei Reuven were trying toe exempt theirs from danger. If Moshe suspected them of sharing the spirit of the spies, why permit them to leave their families safely in Transjordan?
It appears to me that they key to understanding this sequence lies in the precise language of Moshe’s answer. If bnei Gad and bnei Reuven kept their word to go before the rest of the nation into war, Moshe told them, “You will be pure and guiltless in the eyes of Hashem and in the eyes of the Jewish people.” (Bamidbar 32:22). Chazal derive from these words that a person must not act in such a way as to cause others to suspect him of sin. The entire concept of mar’is ayin is based on this source. Although a Jew is required to judge his fellow Jew favorably, that is not a license to give rise to needless suspicions which will cause others to leap to false conclusions.
In this light the entire exchange takes on an entirely new cast. The two tribes realized that their request could raise suspicions. That is why they first hinted to Moshe rather than making an express request. They hoped that Moshe would of his own accord make the suggestion that they remain in Transjordan, and thus absolve them. There fore they began with a list of the cities, in the hopes that Moshe would himself recognize the suitability of these rich pasture lands for their large herds. When Moshe remained silent, they became more explicit, adding that these cities were surrounded by rich pasture lands and that they had large herds of cattle. At that point they ended their presentation, as indicated by the parashah stumah. Only because Moshe still remained silent did they have no choice but to make their final request.
For his part, Moshe understood their intentions from the beginning. But he felt that no matter who actually verbalized the suggestion of remaining in Transjordan, it would have a demoralizing effect. He did not think that their actual intentions were bad, but wanted Gad and Reuven to understand how suspicious their request appeared on the surface. Because the suspicious appearance of cowardice was the entire problem Moshe was combating, it was entirely sufficient for the two tribes to offer to lead the Jewish armies into battle to remove that suspicion.
We learn from this parashah how careful one must be to take into consideration the effect of his actions on others. Maharil Diskin explains that we judge others favorably for our own sake as well as theirs. Most people are highly influenced by the behavior they witness. When we judge what others do in a favorable light, we raise the level of our environment in our own eyes and prevent it from negatively influencing us. Moreover, one must not be a stumbling block to others by causing them to harbor unwarranted suspicions.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:1) tells us that we must choose a path of avodas Hashem that brings glory and approbation both from G-d and man. Torah and mitzvos are not one’s own private domain; one has an obligation to strengthen others’ Torah and mitzvos by being a good example.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the following Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:8):
R’ Yitzchak said that the Torah teaches us derech eretz. When one performs a mitzvah he should perform it with joy. For had Reuven known that the Torah would record that he attempted to save Yosef from the brothers, he would have carried him on his shoulders and run home. And if Aharon had known that the Torah would record that he greeted Moshe with a happy heart after (Moshe) was chosen to be the Redeemer, he would have come (to him) with drums and cymbals. And had Boaz known that the Megillah would record his giving Ruth some parched wheat to eat, he would have offered her a banquet.
When one does something to teach others, he does it in a more clear-cut fashion than if he were doing it for his own benefit alone. Had Reuven, Aharon and Boaz known that their actions were not just their own private concern, but would be recorded in the Torah as a lesson to posterity, they would have performed them with even greater intensity and zeal.
Derech eretz is anything that promotes and strengthens society. Hence marital relations, business and commerce, and good character traits are all aspects of derech eretz. R’ Yitzchak’s lesson is that we should perform the mitzvah in such a way that our own joy in the mitzvah is obvious, for in that way we inspire and strengthen others in the performances of mitzvos.
The Midrash of R’ Yitzchak concludes that even today Eliyahu and Mashiach are still recording accounts of all our deeds to be included in future holy books. These works are sealed and affirmed by Hashem Himself. From this we learn that our actions are not something between us and Hashem alone, but must be done in such a way as to bring the respect and admiration of the surrounding society so as to promote the observance of Torah.