The Significance Of Gilead: Why Is the End of Bamidbar so Anticlimactic? | Aleph Beta

Why Is The End Of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?

The Deeper Significance Of Gilead In The Bible

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Torah is a book of great drama, why does the narrative ends with a seemingly-unnecessary story about a random conquest of some towns? In this week and next week, Rabbi Fohrman paints a picture of epic connections to the stories of Jacob, Joseph and Judah.


Okay, today I want to talk to you about a great mystery that concerns the end of the Torah.

The end of the Torah, you say! We are not up to the end of the Torah, this is the end of the Book of Numbers but in a certain way, it is. The entire Book of Deuteronomy is really just Moshe's farewell speech. The action of the Torah, ends at the end of the book of Numbers.

We hear about these obscure people who go and conquer these Amorite lands, this fellow Jair ben Manasseh shows up and conquers a bunch of towns. He appears again later in the end of next week's Parshat and this obscure conquest just seems very, very anti-climactic. Who cares about it, what does it teach us and why do we need to know?

The Torah is a book of great drama, the Book of Genesis deals with huge stories with cataclysmic implications and it ends with this, little stories with seemingly no implications or, are there really no implications? I'd like to suggest to you that the implications here are connected deeply to the stories that we are so familiar with, in the book of Genesis.

What's so Important About the Story of the Land of Gilead?

The epic story that I would like to tell you over this week and next, is the story of the land of Gilead. Right here, in Matot, we learn that the family of Machir, the child of Manasseh, they went to the land of Gilead which was under Amorite control at the time and they captured this territory and then we hear of one of the members of this family, Jair, the child of Manasseh:

Vayilkod et-chavoteihem – and he captures all the towns of Gilead,

Vayikra ethen chavot yair – and he named them, the towns of Jair.

Who was Jair really and why do I care about the capture of Gilead? Jair ben Manasseh, a child from the tribe of Manasseh, who strangely is not from the tribe of Manasseh at all, at least not according to the Book of Chronicles.

The Book of Numbers identifies Jair as coming from the family of Machir – the child of Manasseh is of course one of the two children of Joseph – and yet, the Book of Chronicles identifies him as a child coming from the tribe of Judah. Now this may not seem like a terribly big deal but I assure you there's a great story to be told here and it begins with this little tiny discrepancy between the Book of Chronicles and the Book of Numbers.

Come with me for a minute into the Book of Chronicles and I am going to give you like 10 seconds of genealogy. The book gives the lineage of the tribe Judah. That Judah gave birth to Peretz, that Peretz gave birth to Hezron. That Hezron married the daughter of Machir from Menasseh, they had a child by the name of Segub and Segub gave birth to Jair.

Now, that may all seem very complicated but the upshot of it all is that Jair has a grandmother from the tribe of Menasseh but that doesn't make him a card carrying member of the tribe of Menasseh because tribal affiliation follows patrilineal descent. So Jair is actually from the tribe of Judah. Why then does the book of numbers disguise that and suggest that, he is from Menasseh rather than Judah?

This seemingly trivial mystery brings us I believe to the edge of an epic story. A story, whose final chapter perhaps takes place right here, in Parshat Matot but whose earliest chapters begin right in the depths of the Book of Genesis, in one of the most difficult and tragic times in the entire bible.

What Does Gilead Mean in the Bible?

Gilead seems to get its name from an episode of Genesis, chapter 31. Yaakov flees from the house of Laban, his father in law. Rachel, his wife, has surreptitiously taken possession of traphim belonging to her father, Laban. Exactly, what traphim are is unclear. They may have been certain kinds of idols that Laban worshipped.

Three days later, Laban finds out that Yaakov has fled, chases after him. Vayirdav Yaakov, catches up with him, vayasev Laban et Yaakov, and when he does, he confronts Yaakov and accuses him of underhanded conduct. Lamah nachbeta livroach vatignov oti, he chastises him, how come you hid like a thief and you ran away? V'lo higadta li, you never told me you were leaving, I would have sent you out with songs and dances. Didn't even give me a chance to kiss my children goodbye. And then, he concludes lamah ganavtaet-elohai, and why did you steal my gods?

Yaakov is unaware that anyone from his household has taken them and he made a declaration that he will live to regret.

Im asher timtza et eloheicha lo yihyeh, he says, whoever has taken your Gods, will die.

Haker-lecha mah imdi, search my tents, find whatever is yours.

V'lo-yada Yaakov ki Rachel genavatam, but Yaakov didn't know that Rachel have taken them.

In a fact that Yaakov has inadvertently proclaimed a kind of death sentence upon his beloved wife, a death sentence that becomes tragically fulfilled when Rachel dies at young age, on the road of traveling towards Canaan. Rashi treats the declaration of Yaakov as a kind of curse, umiotah klalah, Rashi says and from that curse, metah Rachel baderech, Rachel died by the way. Rashi quotes this in the name of Bereshit Rabbah.

Now, why am I telling you all of this? Because all of these takes place in Gilead.

When Laban chases after Yaakov, he encamps in har gilad, Mount Gilead, and why is it called Mount Gilead? Evidently for what happens there just a few verses later. For after Laban finishes searching the tents unsuccessfully, for his traphim, he makes a covenant with Yaakov. He says, let the God of your father Abraham, the God of my father Nachor, judge between us when we leave each other today.

This story isn't over now, God will judge between us and here's a pile of stones and these pile of stones will be the witness between us. The pile of stones is called a gal, the witness is called eid, becomes Gilead. It is the beginning of Gilead in the Torah and in our story, Parshat Matot, is the end of Gilead in the Torah.

What do these two mysterious stories of Gilead have to do with each other?

Tracing the Meaning of Gilead in the Bible

Let's think a little bit about the implications of what Rashi has said here about the unfortunate curse, uttered by Yaakov, unaware that Rachel was the one who took the traphim. Rachel is taken from him before her time. Yaakov is deprived of Rachel in his life because he promised that whoever had taken the traphim will die but Yaakov is to be deprived of Rachel, it wouldn't really be enough, would it? Just to take Rachel away from him? You would have to take her children away too. Does Yaakov ever lose Joseph? He does, in the sale of Joseph.

Let's look carefully at the sail for a moment and listen for an echo of the story of the traphim.

When Yaakov promises Laban, that the person who has taken the traphim would die, his language is: im asher timtza et eloheicha lo yihyeh – with whomever is found your gods, they shall not live, haker-lecha ma imadi, recognize for yourself, whatever is yours within my tents. Do we ever hear those words later on in the Torah? The word matza, found, together with haker, recognize?

These are the exact words with which the sale of Joseph was perpetrated. The brothers come to their father, zot matzanu, we found this they said and they presented him the bloody coat. Haker na, recognize please, if this is your son's coat?

Remember the feast that Yaakov had with his brothers in law, the children of Laban, to finalize the covenant? That's the first time that we hear about brothers sitting down and eating bread. When is the next and the only other time in the five books of Moses that we ever hear about brothers sitting down to break breads with each other? It is in the sale of Joseph.

Vayeshvu leechal-lechem, the brothers having thrown Joseph in the pit, sit down to eat bread together – and the connection goes still further. Listen, for example, to Rachel's declaration to her father, Laban. When Laban comes looking for the traphim, Rachel lakchah et hatrafim, and Rachel had taken the traphim, vatesimem bechar hagamal, and she had put them in the paddle sack of the camel. What a vivid picture we have, we know exactly where she has put them but there is an elaborate double entendre here.

Listen to the world traphim phonetically. Forget how it is spelled, what does traphim sound like and does it remind you of anything in the sale of Joseph story? It certainly does, when Yaakov sees the bloody coat, what does he say? Says, tarof toraf Yosef, Joseph has been torn up alive; the word for torn up is taraf. When there is two tarafs, it is plural; it's traphim, spelled differently with a taf instead of a tet but it seems to be a play on words.

The play on words continues. Rachel had taken the traphim, vatesimem bechar hagamal, she places them in the pillow – but what does bet chaf resh spell aside from pillow? It spells bechor, she had placed her oldest son on top of the camel. Indeed when Joseph is taken away, the bechor of Rachel, what was he taken away from the pit on? The caravan of Ishmaelites spirit away Joseph on camels, it is as if Rachel put her bechor on the camel. And here is Rachel sitting on the traphim and she says, lo uchal lakum mipaneicha, father, please forgive me, I cannot get up for you, ki-derech nashim li, because the way of women is upon me – and this is how she evades detection by her father. But in effect what she is saying to her father is, if I get up all you would see is a pile of bloody clothes.

What do the brothers present father with, in the sale of Joseph? The bloody coat. This bloody mess is all we can find, what you are really looking for, we have no idea where it is. It is the same story, hauntingly one more time. And finally perhaps most chilling of all, when Joseph is taken out of the pit by the Ishmaelite and put upon on their camels, where are those Ishmaelites coming from?

V'hineh orchat yishmelim, the caravan of Ishmaelite, baim megilad, they are coming from Gilead. It is the long arm of galed, it is Laban, coming with his covenant to take what's his. Not only Rachel herself disappeared from Yaakov's grasp but Laban will have her son too.

This here in Genesis is the beginning, of the shocking and dark story of galed, of Gilead, and I would like to suggest to you, the very last acts of the book of numbers, focus on Gilead as well.

The Significance of Gilead in the Bible

It is how the Torah ends, if you think about it, everything else that happens after this, is just Moshe's speech, this is the end. It all ends with Gilead too.

How does the end relate to the beginning? The story of Gilead begins tragically but it ends redemptively. Something is salvaged in Gilead, something related to Gilead's harsh beginnings.

We will explore that, when we come back next week. I will see you then.

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