The Butterfly Effect

Parashat Massei: Numbers 33:1-36:13

When the Children of Israel were about to cross over the Jordan and conquer Canaan, the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh petitioned Moses to remain on the east side of the Jordan so they could begin settling into their inheritance. Rather than continuing the conquest along with the other tribes, they had found what they desired (land fitting for their cattle) and wanted to start settling down. They wanted to finally start putting down some roots after forty years of living a nomadic life. But their plan wasn’t in alignment with God’s plan. What was so bad about their proposition? We find out in a rebuke from Moses:

“Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the LORD has given them? Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land … And behold, you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the LORD against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.” (Numbers 32:7–8, 14–15).

To the modern reader it sounds like Moses is making a big deal out of nothing. But maybe there’s more going on that we realize. You’ve probably heard about the butterfly effect. It’s a scientific theory that speculates that the flapping wings of a single butterfly in one part of the world actually has the power to affect the weather in another part of the world over time. In other words, a seemingly small and trivial action has the potential of causing astronomical, and often unanticipated, results.

There is a story in Midrash Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6) where a small boat with a few passengers take off across a lake. Once they are in the middle of the lake, one of the passengers takes out a hand drill and begins drilling a hole below his seat. Immediately, there is an uproar among the other passengers chastising him for his fool actions. But he objects: “What does it concern YOU if I drill beneath MY seat?”

Although the ramifications of the person drilling a hole in the boat are immediately evident, the point of this dramatic story is the same as what is going on in our parashah. Remember, the Children of Israel had been sentenced to forty years of wandering through the wilderness in order that an entire generation would be eradicated simply because they slandered the Land of Promise and refused to enter it (see Numbers 14). Now, it appears that these tribes are separating themselves from their brothers and (once again) refusing to cross over the Jordan in order to conquer the land promised to them. Although they don’t intend on harming their brothers, their actions, nonetheless, had the potential to do so. The other tribes were looking to them for leadership, and they were about to let them down.

Once Moses corrects this confederacy of the two and a half tribes, he gives them a stern warning that if they don’t live up to their obligations things would not bode well for them. He then gives them the famous quote, “But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

What does it mean that “your sin will find you out”? It means that our choices and our actions are never isolated events. They will always produce ripples in the pond that will rock another person’s boat. It is a reminder of the butterfly effect. One person’s actions have the potential to significantly impact another person, whether they intend on doing so or not. In other words, my choices affect more than just me. Even though the choice of these tribes seemed innocent, their subsequent actions had the potential to nearly decimate an entire nation.

Most of Christianity emphasizes having a “personal relationship” with the LORD. But even though we may have a personal relationship, our relationship is not merely personal. We often fail to recognize that our actions affect others, whether we actually know about them or not. Judaism realizes this and emphasizes the communal aspect of faith and action. What we do individually, even privately, has the potential to affect others. It’s a flap of the wing or a ripple on the water. Just like the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh, our faithfulness or unfaithfulness isn’t just a private matter. It can “make or break” others, particularly those who are dependent upon us or who are looking to us for leadership. Let’s remember to make every action intentional so that the Kingdom is built up through us, rather than damaged by us.