The Torah Text
As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Canaan and receive their share of the land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menasseh notice how good the land where they currently are (before crossing the Jordan River) is for the flocks, their primary livelihood. They petition Moses to allow them to stay there. Moses, concerned they will not help their fellow Israelites fight the Canaanites, asks them to first fight, then settle outside the intended territory. They agree, but say that first “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” (Numbers 32:16).
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
וערים. בתחלה לטפנו
Numbers 32:16 AND CITIES. First for our little ones.
Reflections for the Path
Because in the Torah these tribes mention sheep first and then children, Rashi (based on midrash) suggests it reveals their despicable priorities. “They paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters, because they mentioned their cattle before their children. Moses said to them, ‘Not so! Make the chief thing the chief thing and what is subordinate subordinate. First build cities for your little ones and afterwards enclosures for your flocks’ (cf. v. 24).”
Abraham ibn Ezra however assumes that of course the tribes care more for their children than their flocks, and clarifies that in his very short comment, lest we misread their intentions as he thinks Rashi does.
For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.