There is a subtle but interesting difference between how Moshe addresses the tribes of Reuven and Gad in our parsha (Devarim) compared to how he addressed them when they first approached him about living on the “East bank.” back in parshat Matos-Masei.

In the previous parsha (Numbers 32:17), Moshe instructed them to “lead before the Jewish people” when they go to war against the seven Canaanite nations occupying the Land of Israel.  That is, the two tribes were to fight together with the other tribes in the war of conquest, but at their head, “in front” of them.

However, in our parsha (Deut 3:18), Moshe commands the two tribes to “go before your brothers…”  Rashi explains; “They preceded the rest of the Jews in war…” implying that Gad and Reuven were to fight, not together with the rest of the Jews, but in front and separate from them.  What accounts for the difference in Moshe’s instructions?  Why does he change from the previous book of the Torah (Numbers, Bamidbar) to our current book (Deuteronomy, Devarim)?

Before answering, let’s look at another question.  If the war were to be won easily, it was good to have the most fierce tribes at the head of the fighting.  And it was well known that neither Gad nor Reuven, but another tribe, was considered the most fierce of the fighters – that tribe was Yehuda, who were compared to a lion.  So, why did not Moshe have the tribe of Yehuda fight in front of all the Jewish people?  The answer lies in the blessing that Yehuda received – “Yehuda, your hand will be upon the neck of your adversaries…”  This indicates that Yehuda was so fierce that his enemies would automatically run away from them, and therefore he would have to chase them, catch up and place his hands “on their neck” to stop them.  And invariably some would get away and escape.  This could not be allowed to happen during the war to conquer the land of Israel, for the Jews were commanded to kill all of the Canaanite nations.  And that is why Moshe did not command the tribe of Yehuda to fight at the head of the Jewish people.

Back to the question above – what accounts for the difference between Moshe’s directions to Gad and Reuven in parshat Matos and in our parsha?  What occurred between the two parshas was the Moshe realized that he would not be entering the land of Israel.  That became finalized only now, in parshat Devarim as he stood before the rest of the Jews overlooking the land of Israel from the east.  And since it would not be Moshe leading the Jews into battle in Israel, but Joshua, it was going to be a different kind of war.

In general, Moshe’s leadership was openly miraculous. From the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah and the events in the desert, there was nothing the Moshe accomplished that took place in a natural manner.  It was all accompanied by supernatural miracles.  It follows that a war led my Moshe in the land of Israel would also have been completely miraculous.  The Canaanite nations would not have even attempted to fight; they would have either died automatically or left the boundaries of Israel without a fight.

However, a war led by Joshua was another matter automatically.  If Moshe was like the sun, Joshua was like the moon.  His path was not miraculous, at least not in the obvious way of Moshe Rabeinu.  Joshua would have to fight within the boundaries of nature.  Within those limitations of the physical world, Joshua and the Jews did see miraculous results, but they were of the supernatural nature of Moshe Rabeinu.  When Joshua fought, for example, the Jews lost no men.  But still, it was necessary for Joshua to round up the troops, to fight and to generally operate within the limitations of nature.  The results were beyond natural, but the efforts were within the bounds of nature.

And that is what accounts for the different set of instructions issued to the tribes of Gad and of Reuven.  In parshat Matos, when Moshe still thought he might enter the land, he instructed them to fight “before” but together with the rest of the Jews.  Moshe knew that the presence of Gad and Reuven alone would suffice to vanquish the seven Canaanite nations.  No fighting would be necessary; rather, the appearance alone of the tribes would suffice and therefore they could all approach the battle together.  However, once it became clear that it was Joshua who would lead the Jews into battle, it became a natural war, fought within the boundaries of nature.  In that case, it made sense to put Gad and Reuven “before” the tribes, and also separate from them.  It was known that Gad were so fierce that they would “lop off the arm together with the head” of the enemy, and that is what they did.  So, Moshe had them lead the rest of the Jews, and if there happened to be any enemy troops who weren’t killed by Gad and Reuven, the remaining tribes would follow up and do a “mop-up” operation.  Therefore, Moshe instructed them in our parsha to fight “before” and separate from the rest of the Jews, to allow for the war to take place in a “natural” manner.

For a more detailed version, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 9, Page 1-13

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