When the Children of Israel had reached the Eastern bank of the Jordan river and were preparing to cross over and conquer the land, two and a half of the twelve tribes asked to stay behind on the Eastern side. Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe wanted their portion of land to be East of the Jordan. They promised to join in the war effort with the rest of the Israelites; they weren’t intending to abandon their cousins to fight the wars themselves. They merely wanted to live on the Eastern bank of the Jordan because it was very fertile land.
Moses grants their request, but not without teaching the two and a half tribes an important lesson.
When making their pitch to Moses, the representatives of the two and a half tribes say, “we will build fenced areas for our sheep, and cities for our children, and then we will join the front line.” In his answer, Moses reverses the list: “Build cities for your children and fenced areas for your sheep.” Commentaries understand this as a subtle form of rebuke. Moses thought the way they formulated their request showed where their priorities lay – they were overly concerned about their wealth and prosperity. Moses tells us: It’s OK to pursue financial success, but family must come before wealth.