Learning to Negotiate for Community’s Sake


The negotiations between Moses and two of the tribes in this week's Torah portion demonstrate the importance of communal balance.

This Torah portion, Mattot, features a negotiation between Moses and the tribes of Reuben and Gad over whether or not they can settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River, rather than in the land of Israel. The tribes have found that this land is excellent for their cattle, and they would like to stay.
Nehama Leibowitz, z”l, a contemporary Israeli Torah commentator, notes that the tension in Mattot is between the choice for personal advancement by raising cattle on the eastern side, or the fulfillment of a mission — crossing the Jordan into Israel as God has directed everyone to do. Cattle, in the ancient world, was material wealth. Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, shows that the group was so concerned with their wealth that they put it above concern for their children.
They first ask Moses’ permission to build folds for their cattle, and next they mention building cities to protect their little ones. Moses pointedly corrects this by repeating back to them, in the course of negotiation, “Build your cities for your little ones and your folds for your sheep,” (32:24) thus reversing the order of the actions in order to prioritize the children.
Moses agrees to their plan, but only once they agree to enter the land as part of the army, risking their lives alongside the other tribes. As they negotiate, we see another clue to the dynamic of this current generation, which is finally poised to enter the land. Why might they be more concerned with their wealth and their own comfort, even over that of their children?
The biblical text raises the question of what kind of role models these tribes had for parenting. They were raised by the generation that grew up in slavery in Egypt and then wandered the desert. That generation did not have the faith to cross the Jordan into the promised land of Israel; nor does this group. “The Lord was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the Lord’s displeasure was gone.” (32:13)
If the Lord thought that waiting until the previous generation was wiped out would wipe the slate clean, this seems to have backfired. The new generation is following exactly in the footsteps of the old: “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord had given them? That is what our fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land.” (32:7-8)
Moses is afraid that this group’s request to not enter Israel will erode the faith of those willing to settle there, just as the spies’ scary report about the land deterred the people of the first generation from wanting to go.
Our parents’ trauma can be passed on to us. In our own community, we have seen the children of Holocaust survivors struggle with psychological challenges. The healing does not happen in just one generation. 
What is hopeful in the story of Mattot is that Moses and the Reubenites and Gadites were willing to negotiate with each other and come to a compromise. The group moves from completely prioritizing their own needs to contributing to the needs of the whole of Israel. This kind of incremental change is what it means to do the holy work of building — and healing — a community.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]


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