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Parashat Mattot-Massei

July 19, 2012

Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Not Much Has Changed

I recall the period following the ’67 war when many Jews, religious and not, swelled with pride, kvelled, at what “our” tiny nation in the desert, surrounded by enemies, had accomplished. Some of us, so inspired by the military miracle, made aliyah, moved there permanently.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm, the vast majority of Jews remained in their “native” lands. Little could induce most of us in the USA to emigrate because we had successfully assimilated and felt secure here.

Today about half the Jews in the world live in Eretz Israel and the other half outside it. These statistics cause some Israelis to delegitimize the loyalty of those of us outside. But the truth is that it’s always been this way.

The first of this week’s double parashah, Mattot, “Tribes,” is the earliest depiction of this conflict, as two of the tribes, the Gadites and Reubenites, ask Moses if they can settle east side of the Jordan River instead of within Israel, ostensibly to feed their cattle. They approached Moses prior to the great battle to conquer Israel to express their desire to feed their cattle. “Favor us,” they pleaded, by giving us thisland; do not move us across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:5). Moses suspected them of the same betrayal their ancestors had committed when 10 out of 12 spies he sent to scout the Land returned with false reports.

“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6) Moses demanded. They assured him of their sincerity and offered to fight along with the others. Eventually Moses accepted their promise but admonished them against breaking it (Numbers 32:20-24).

Throughout the millennia rabbis have grappled with the request posed by the tribes: were they traitors, caring only about themselves, or were they truly supportive of the others as they claimed? Nahmanides, also known as the Ramban, a leading medieval scholar and physician, contended that the tribes’ intentions were misunderstood. He believed that their offer to lead the militia and to give up their inheritance inside Israel was legitimate. They wanted to do what was best for themselves and all the Israelites as their plan would provide more land for the others.

Modern Israeli commentator, Pinchas Peli, expands upon the early rabbis, who criticized the Reubenites and Gadites, linking them to traitors such as Korah and Goliath, who sought power and wealth for themselves at the expense of the nation. He sees the two tribes as a separatist threat to the unity of the Jewish nation, potentially depleting their strengthwhen it is most needed.

“Moses’ concern was with the ethical implications of the seceding of two tribes from a war that should be fought by allof Israel.” Moses also had to consider the effect that the Reubenites & Gadites might have on the morale of the people” (Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, pp. 189-93).

Although Peli wrote in the 1980’s, it’s as if he were reading today’s Ha’aretz (a major Israeli newspaper). It doesn’t take great leap of imagination to connect cattle and good grazing lands of ancient times to the comfort Jews feel in the USA today. The clash between Moses and the tribes over interests and intentions has persisted to modernity.

Why do Jews continue to live outside Israel?

We might say that is because we have good grazing land for our cattle, and we don’t want to give it up.

Does this mean that we are only concerned with our own welfare, indifferent to fellow Jews in Israel? And what about Israelis who inhabit territories that threaten the country’s stability? Are they concerned only with their religious ideals? Do they consider that they could be placing other Israelis and Jews throughout the world in jeopardy?

As you reflect on your own reasons for living outside the Land, I encourage you to learn about and to make the effort to respect perspectives differentfrom your own regarding Israel, even if you don’t agree with them, to build on common ground in order to morally support what is ultimately our spiritual homeland – whether or not we live there.

As we learn from Pirkei Avot (5:20), it is important for us to argue passionately, but arguments must be for the sake of heaven, greater good, not for victory, personal gain.

Even if, like the Gadites and Reubenites of Mattot, we choose to live outside the land, it does not mean that we are turning our backs on Israel. For we in the Diaspora have so many opportunities to be present, albeit physically distant from Israel. It’s in our hands.


Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvot and other life cycle events.