Home > Divrei Torah > Mattot-Massei


July 20, 2006

By Michael Kohn

The double parashah, Mattot-Massei, concludes
the Book of Numbers. The narrative predominantly
describes the final preparations for the Israelites
to enter the land covenanted by God to their
ancestors. Among these preparations is the
allocation of land to the various tribes. But
before that can occur, something remarkable happens
‘ representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuben
approach Moses, Elazar and the leaders of the
Israelite community and tell them that they do not
want to cross the Jordan and take up their
inheritance in the covenanted land. Instead, they
wanted to remain on the east side of the river and
be granted their inheritance in those lands. As
stated by the tribal representative, the expressed
purpose for their request is because they had found
the lands of Jazer and Gilead to be choice lands for
their livestock, of which they had an abundance.

Moses tries to shame them: ‘Should your brothers go
to war, while you settle here?’ And then asks why,
by their request, they would dishearten the
Israelites from crossing the Jordan. Rashi comments
that the Israelites would think that Gad and Reuben
were afraid because of the war and the strength of
the cities and people. Finally, Moses reminds them
of the debacle of the spies, whose report had
disheartened the Israelites and caused God’s anger
to flare and declare that all who left Egypt who
were of the age of 20 and up would not see the
covenanted land, thus prolonging the wandering in
the desert for 40 years. An angry Moses told them
they had replaced their fathers as sinners.

Chastened by Moses’ outburst, the tribal
representatives modify their request and an
interesting negotiation then takes place between
them and Moses. Reuben and Gad propose that they
‘build pens for their flock and livestock’ on the
east side of the Jordan ‘and cities for our
children.’ Then, they would arm themselves and lead
the Israelites across the Jordan until they have
taken possession of their inherited property in the
covenanted land. But Rashi notes their continued
selfishness: ‘They were more concerned over their
property than their sons and daughters for they
preferred their livestock to their children.’ This
was also noted by Moses, who in rephrasing their
proposal stated: ‘Build for yourselves cities for
you children and pens for your flock.’ Moses also
clarified that in going to war, they were acting on
behalf of God, not the Israelites.

Reminding them that this pledge that had come from
their mouths, they must do, Moses accepted the
revised proposal and instructed Elazar, Joshua and
the leaders of the Israelite tribes to honor the
bargain. Thus, parameters were set for voluntary
life outside the covenanted land.

For those of us voluntarily living in the diaspora,
does the bargain reached between Reuben, Gad and
Moses have any meaning for us now, when Israel is
under attack from Gaza and Lebanon? While we have
not bargained with the leaders of Israel to live
outside its borders to pursue our livelihoods, the
parashah reminds us that the land was given
by God to us through our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob, and that it was conquered and settled at
God’s behest. We are also reminded that even those
who choose to live outside the land have a communal
obligation to help those who settled within its

When the second Intifada began in 2000, American
Jews stayed away from Israel in droves. When I
visited there in March, 2001, Ben Yehuda Street was
virtually deserted ‘ merchants were almost giving
their wares away to Americans brave enough to have
come. The promenade in Tiberias was empty ‘ two
friends and I were the only ones there. And at
Kibbutz Nof Ginosar, where we had spent the
previous night, we were told that the only other
Americans to have visited in months were Christians
traveling on missions. We did not meet our communal
obligation then.

Now, we have another opportunity to do so. Will we
support Israel with our dollars, our vocal support
in Congress and the White House and our presence on
the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat, Be’er
Sheva and elsewhere in that holy land? Or will we,
as we did six years ago, abandon her until its
‘safer’ and more convenient? Israel is important to
the future of the Jewish people here in America. A
recent Brandeis study has shown that over three
times as many college students who took a Birthright
trip to Israel are active in Hillel, compared with
those who did not participate in that program.

But perhaps the most important lesson we can take
from this parashah is that of keeping our
word. The parashah begins with a description
of the power of nedarim ‘ usually translated
as ‘vows’ ‘ and the Torah tells us that if one makes
such a vow, or an oath imposing an obligation on
oneself, ‘he shall not desecrate his word;
everything which comes out from his mouth he must
do.’ Moses reminded Gad and Reuben of this
commandment. Twice each year ‘ at the conclusion of
the Passover seder and after the blowing of the
shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur ‘ we
make a such a vow: ‘L’shanah haba’ah
‘ Next year in Jerusalem’. If we
are to not break our pledge, next year is now.

May peace come soon to our troubled land and people.