Note: This week’s article is based largely on R. Nathaniel Helfgot’s analysis of Numbers 32 in Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and its Interpretation.
They say that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” But who are “they,” and when did they first say it? Scholars don’t know. In Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, Harvard English professor Bartlett Jere Whiting claims that the earliest recorded reference of this aphorism stems from the middle of the twentieth-century. Yet it’s clear that people were using the saying long before then. In his own article on the topic, Wolfgang Mieder, one of the world’s leading paremiologists (proverb-experts), cites several possible precursors to the “green grass” adage. These include “distant pastures always look greener” (1936); “hills are green far away” (1887); and even “the corn in another man’s ground seemeth ever more fertile and plentiful then doth our own” (1545)—an expression that was itself taken from the Latin “fertilior seges est alieno semper in arvo,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs.
But perhaps we can trace the origins of this maxim even farther. Consider, for instance, the following passage from this week’s Torah portion:
The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of livestock very numerous and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for livestock. The descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben came, and they spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the princes of the community, saying… “This land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” They said further: “If it pleases you, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not take us across the Jordan” (Num. 32:1-5).
The Israelites have been travelling in the wilderness for forty years. As they’re about to enter into Canaan, however, the Reubenites and the Gadites notice “greener grass” on the eastern side of the Jordan. Suddenly, the Promised Land no longer interests them. These two tribes decide that they want to build their homes across the river from the other ten so that their cattle will be able to graze more freely—and ultimately, that’s what they do. Thus, they betray their role as shepherds: instead of guiding their flock, they’re the ones following the herd.
There’s a lot to say about this episode. We can’t really appreciate its significance, though, unless we provide some context. After all, we’ve seen stories like this one before. Both come from the book of Genesis:
Narrative #1: Lot and Abraham
And Abram was very heavy with cattle, with silver, and with gold… And also Lot, who went with Abram, had flocks and cattle and tents. And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle… And Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if you go left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left.” And Lot raised his eyes, and he saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was entirely watered; before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Zoar. And Lot chose for himself the entire plain of the Jordan, and Lot traveled from the east, and they parted from one another (Gen. 13:2-11).
Narrative #2: Esau and Jacob
And Esau took his wives, his sons, and his daughters and all the people of his household, and his cattle and all his animals and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and he went to another land, because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too numerous for them to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau dwelt on Mount Seir—Esau, that is Edom (Gen. 36:6-8).
When we compare these three narratives—two from Genesis, and one from our Torah portion, in Numbers—we discover that they share several essential features. In each story, the protagonists own abundant livestock, and in each story, they separate from their relatives as a result. In fact, these separations become progressively more significant as we venture deeper into the Torah. In the first text, Lot separates from his uncle, Abraham; in the second text, Esau separates from his brother, Jacob; and in the third text, the Reubenites and Gadites separate from the entire nation of Israel—and even, for a period of several years, from their own children (see Num. 32:16-18).
But there’s one more similarity between these narratives. Lot, Esau, and the Reubenites/Gadites don’t just relocate—they all abandon the land of Canaan. Moreover, they all settle somewhere in the east: Sodom, Seir, and Gilead, respectively. That’s pretty symbolic. After all, “the east” figures prominently in yet another Genesis story: the one about the Bible’s very first brothers, Cain and Abel, who were also separated from each other because of an incident involving some sheep:
Abel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil. Now it came to pass after some days, that Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord. And Abel he too brought of the firstborn of his flocks and of their fattest, and the Lord turned to Abel and to his offering. But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell… And Cain spoke to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him… And Cain went forth from before the Lord, and he dwelt in the land of the wanderers, to the east of Eden (Gen. 4:2-16).
In the Lot/Abraham narrative, Lot emigrates from Canaan to Sodom because Sodom seems to him “like the garden of the Lord” (Gen. 13:10). But the story of Cain and Abel, which serves as a paradigm for all similar ones throughout Tanach, places “the Lord’s garden” in the west, and exile in “the east.” Why?
It seems that what we have here is a political allegory of the Ancient Near East. From the perspective of a Judean audience, at least, it would be difficult not to interpret the series of stories that we’ve looked at together as a subtle polemic against all those who rejected Canaan (=Eden, =God’s presence) in the name of material benefit: Moab & Ammon, (=Lot), Edom (=Esau), and even the breakaway kingdom of Israel (=Reuben, Gad, Manasseh et. al.) The founding fathers of these nations were unwilling to stick it out in the Promised Land if it meant sacrificing their “fattest flocks,” as Abel had once done. Instead, they, like Cain, asked God to take back the “fruit of His soil,” saying, in effect: “thanks, but no thanks.”
In a few weeks from now, we will start to read from the text of the speech that Moshe delivered to the Israelites immediately before he passed away. Near the beginning of that speech, Moshe acknowledges the economic challenges that come with living in Canaan. “The land out of which you are coming is not like the land of Egypt,” he admits. “The land that you are going to inherit is full of mountains and valleys. It receives its water only from the rain of heaven” (Deut. 11:10-11). When climate conditions are unfavorable, even basic food and drink can be hard to come by in the land of Israel. Our Torah doesn’t downplay this fact.
Yet it wasn’t for lack of food and drink that the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Reubenites and the Gadites left the land of Israel. They left the land because of their “abundant flocks:” because of the all luxuries that they felt they couldn’t do without. Somehow, in their pursuit of affluence, the members of these tribes convinced themselves that “the fat of sheep” was a must-have, but that their brothers, whom they left behind, were dispensable. It was an enormous mistake.
We live in an era of unprecedented prosperity. For this reason, it is perhaps more critical than ever that each of us take the time to determine what is truly “necessary,” and what constitutes an excess. Everything, after all, carries an opportunity cost; everything we do, we do at the expense of something else. Our ancestors understood this. For them, family was important; peoplehood was important; God was important; living in the land of Israel was important. They set their priorities straight, and they set a wonderful example for us.
May Hashem grant us the strength to live up to their legacy.