One of the hardest tasks of a leader – from prime ministers to parents – is conflict resolution. Yet it is also the most vital. Where there is leadership, there is long-term cohesiveness within the group, whatever the short-term problems. Where there is a lack of leadership – where leaders lack authority, grace, generosity of spirit and the ability to respect positions other than their own – there is divisiveness, rancor, backbiting, resentment, internal politics and a lack of trust. Leaders are people who put the interests of the group above those of any subsection of the group. They care for, and inspire others to care for, the common good.
That is why an episode in this week’s parshah is of the highest consequence. It arose like this: The Israelites were on the last stage of their journey to the Promised Land. They were now situated on the east bank of the Jordan, within sight of their destination. Two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, who had large herds and flocks of cattle, felt that the land they were currently on was ideal for their purposes. It was good grazing country. So they approached Moses and asked for permission to stay there rather than take up their share in the Land of Israel. They said: “If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan” (Numbers 32: 5).
Moses was instantly alert to the danger. The two tribes were putting their own interests above those of the nation as a whole. They would be seen as abandoning the nation at the very time they were needed most. There was a war – in fact a series of wars – to be fought if the Israelites were to inherit the Promised Land. As Moses said to the tribes: “Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from crossing over into the land the Lord has given them?” (Numbers 32:6-7).
The proposal was potentially disastrous. Moses reminded the men of Reuben and Gad what had happened in the incident of the spies. The spies demoralized the people, ten of them saying that they could not conquer the land. The inhabitants were too strong. The cities were impregnable. The result of that one moment was to condemn an entire generation to die in the wilderness and to delay the eventual conquest by forty years. “And here you are, a brood of sinners, standing in the place of your fathers and making the Lord even more angry with Israel. If you turn away from following Him, He will again leave all the people in the wilderness, and you will be the cause of their destruction” (Numbers 32:14-15). Moses was blunt, honest and confrontational.
What then followed is a role model in negotiation and conflict resolution. The Reubenites and Gadites recognized the claims of the people as a whole and the justice of Moses’s concerns. They propose this compromise: Let us make provisions for our cattle and our families, and the men will then accompany the other tribes across the Jordan. They will fight alongside them. They will even go ahead of them. They will not return to their cattle and families until all the battles have been fought, the land has been conquered, and the other tribes have received their inheritance.
Essentially they invoke what would later become a principle of Jewish law: zeh neheneh v’zeh lo chaser – an act is permissible if one side gains and the other side does not lose. We will gain, say the two tribes, by having land good for our cattle, but the nation as a whole will not lose because we will be in the army, we will be on the front line, and we will stay there until the war has been won.Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks