Do you have what it takes to be a good listener?
We can learn this week in Parshat Mattot from Moshe Rabbenu, who wasn’t always perfect, even when it came to listening.
With the Israelites on the brink of embarking on the invasion of the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuven and Gad see plenty of promise right where they are, on the east bank on the Jordan River. It’s good cattle country, and they have cattle. “’It would be a great favor to us,’ they continued, ‘if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan’” (Bemidbar 32:5)
The traditional way to read this story is as follows: the tribes are expressing either greed, disloyalty, or both, and Moshe calls them on it immediately. After reminding them how suggestions that Israel might live anywhere but the Promised land spread through the people like a contagion—remember the scouts?—Moshe in effect gives them an ultimatum. The tribes respond by agreeing to lead the troops into battle and only to return to the other side of the river after the entire land has been conquered. To this, Moshe agrees, all the while correcting Reuven’s and Gad’s mistaken priorities (compare Bemidbar 32:16 to 32:24).
In this version, Moshe is the hero and the tribes need to be set straight. Now let’s try another reading, one suggested by Professor Jacob Milgrom in the JPS commentary to Bemidbar. When the tribes say “do not move us across the Jordan,” what do they mean? Now? Ever? Is “us” our entire tribe? Or only our women, children, and cattle? In fact, we don’t know what they mean, because Moshe doesn’t give them a chance to elaborate. Here’s Milgrom’s comment:
“Do not move us across the Jordan’—that is, for settlement in Cisjordan. But they had every intention of participating in the conquest, as is made clear by their subsequent clarification. Moses, assuming that their intent was not to participate in the forthcoming campaign, interrupts their speech to charge them with disloyalty.” (Milgrom, p. 268)
You can understand why red flags go up when Moshe hears the beginning of the tribes’ request. His experiences with the Israelites haven’t always been positive. Still, had he heard them out, he would have learned more about their motives, and an uncomfortable interaction could have been avoided.
In camp, as in all environments where people must interact, conflicts arise when we don’t listen carefully enough to one another. Whether it’s between a tzevet member and a hanikh, or among hanikhim, or parents and administrators, misunderstandings can be avoided with a little extra patient listening. We can learn here from Moshe by noting what he doesn’t do. We can all do well to remember the classic saying that God gave us two ears and only one mouth for good reason!
May our summer at Ramah Berkshires be even greater through the act of listening.
Rabbi David Wise