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Mattot/Massei 5778

July 12, 2018

A D’var Torah for Mattot/Massei
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11)

In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot/Massei, we have a remarkable episode. Two tribes, Reuben and Gad, look around the land where they Israelites are staying before they enter the Promised Land. They see that the land where they are is good for cattle, and they are cattle-herders. They decide this is the land they want, instead of the allotment of land they’ve been promised in Canaan.

What is surprising about this portion is that we’ve taken it for granted ever since the Exodus that what the Israelites really want is to get to the Promised Land. That was the destination after the Exodus. During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness they’ve just been waiting for the opportunity to get into the Promised Land. Or so we would think. Then along comes this passage where two tribes go to Moses and say, “We’re sure the Promised Land is nice and all, but actually we really like it here, thank you very much.”

Moses’s reaction to this is not positive. He tells them they’re just like the spies, and reminds them how angry God was at the spies. I see Moses here as shocked and deeply disappointed. After all, the Israelites are not like the pioneers of the American West, who were looking for a nice place to live, but were not necessarily sure exactly where that was. The Israelites’ journey is not about finding a good place to settle down. It’s about getting to the place that’s already been promised to their ancestors. There’s a plan, and the Gadites and Reubenites are subverting it.

This is the source of Moses’s shock and anger. He is devoted to the plan, and just as we do, he takes it for granted that the Israelites want to live in the Promised Land. It is in his anger that he compares the Reubenites and Gadites to the spies who said the Israelites would not be able to conquer the Promised Land.

The thing is, Moses is wrong. It’s true that like the spies, the Reubenites and Gadites are advocating not entering the land. Besides that, though, it’s completely different. The spies didn’t want to enter the land because they were afraid it couldn’t be conquered. They wanted the land, they just thought they couldn’t get it. And they didn’t have an alternative in mind. Furthermore, they tried to convince all of the Israelites of their position.

In contrast, the Reubenites and Gadites don’t say anything about whether they think the land can’t be conquered, and in fact, they clearly believe it can, because they are perfectly willing to go along as part of the Israelite army that takes the land; they just don’t want to live there. They have an alternative: They like where they are now, and don’t feel any need to live in the Promised Land instead. Furthermore, they aren’t trying to convince the whole Israelite people to stay put, it’s just what they want for themselves.

Ironically, as upset as Moses is, the tribes of Reuben and Gad are evidence that this generation of Israelites is mature and independent—exactly what they need to be. The comparison of these two tribes to the spies shows this.

Have you ever been in a situation when you were working toward a specific goal, perhaps a goal that you didn’t even come up with in the first place, and you just kept working toward it no matter what, without pausing to think about whether that goal is one that is still desirable to you, or anyway, more desirable than what you have now?

It is a sign of openness and creativity to be able to see when something good is in front of you and consequently change a long-held plan. It is a sign of maturity and self-esteem to be able to advocate a different plan without defensiveness and without the need to have others join you.

The two tribes’ reaction to Moses’s anger is further evidence of their self-confidence and healthy independence. They don’t get angry, they don’t threaten, plead, or back down. The text says they “step up to Moses,” which Abarbanel, one of our rabbinic commentators, says means they took him aside to explain to him in private, so as not to embarrass him. This is another sign of maturity.

They are also willing to help the other tribes achieve the goal of conquering the land, and this is what reconciles Moses to their desire, and Moses accedes to their request—if they join the Israelite army for the purpose of taking the land, they may return to the land where they want to live and stay there.

Overall, the decision to let go of the plan of living in the Promised Land, and the way they handle the discussion with Moses, shows that this generation of Reuben and Gad is precisely what the Israelites need to be to rule themselves successfully. These are not slaves. They are mature, self-assured, respectful without kowtowing to their leader, and open to thinking outside of the established plan if a good reason to do so presents itself. They are the heroes of this Torah portion.

May we all be as open, creative, mature, self-assured, supportive of our people, and menschlich as the tribes of Reuben and Gad are in our Torah portion.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) teaches Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY.