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Parashat Mattot-Masei 5782

July 29, 2022

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Mattot-Masei
by Rabbi Doug Alpert

For some reason a good deal of my time both within and outside of Torah has lately focused on land and borders. This week’s double portion, Mattot-Masei provides us with the most extensive, but certainly not the only delineation of the borders for HaAretz-the land of Israel in our Written Torah.

This started for me back in Parashat Shelah-Lekha with the narrative regarding the twelve spies who scouted the land. Within my weekly clergy interfaith Torah study group the conversation shifted from the usual emphasis on the sin of the ten spies who sought to impose their pessimism on the people in contravention to the report of Caleb and Joshua, to a very different issue; why were the spies sent in the first place. What was the ultimate purpose and goal-i.e., why did we need to conquer the land, and what was this gift from G-d of the land that we just had to possess?

In Parashat Mattot we read of what at least begins as a rather contentious request from the tribes of Reuvein and Gad to settle outside of the land, east of the Jordan. (See Numbers ch. 32) Their request is motivated by an economic consideration to settle in good cattle grazing land. The request is ultimately granted upon their promise to, “arm ourselves rapidly and go before B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 32:17)  This has been described as shock troops, going into the land first and taking the greatest risk in conquering the land, land they will conquer for the other tribes and not for themselves.

My own struggle with and desire to better understand the concept of possessed land and borders is centered both in the ongoing and elusive struggle for peace vis-à-vis Israelis and Palestinians, and here at home regarding the conflicting approaches of various states toward abortion and reproductive rights. Seemingly very different issues, yet I think they both rely on how we see the idea of borders as being a means of protection and/or one of exclusion.

As to Israel and my deep yearning for a real peace I presently grapple with a two-state solution-the present policy decision of J Street, versus a single bi-national state centered around equality for all its citizens-an approach articulated by Peter Beinert in an essay in Jewish Currents.  (A side note, I understand that this reflects a left of center position; a natural position for me as it relates to both politics in Israel and here in the States. I merely express the view here to reflect my approach to the idea of borders, and not to begin or engage in a broader debate on Israel’s future. Dare I state the cliché… some of my best friends and family for that matter are deeply committed to AIPAC. They are people I love and respect, never doubting their love for Israel or the Jewish people, as I ask they not doubt mine either.)

I think the two approaches boil down to a whether we lean into our proclivity to establish borders; whether those borders delineate G-d given land and/or, we need to have those borders for our survival. Also, is survival on its own a sufficient purpose to establish exclusive rights to the land or is the land a vehicle for a greater purpose.

If we hold to the idea that HaAretz – the land – is G-d given to us, the Jewish people we are still left with the challenge of determining the exact borders of that land. “[F]rom patriarchal to Roman times-we may distinguish five different conceptions of what constituted the land…” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, at p. 1129) To the extent the description of the borders for the land in this week’s Parashah are an idealized projection there is a further observation in the Plaut essay that this description should not be used as a Torahitically approved mandate for establishing the borders, nor as a basis by Arabs for fearing Israeli expansionism. (Ibid.). It is rather a reflection of a Syrian-Palestine province of Egypt as specified in a treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites.

None of this diminishes our historical and spiritual connection to the land of Israel. Notwithstanding the argument that the land, within whatever understanding of its borders one asserts is an inheritance from G-d we are not free to deny, most discussions of borders center around issues of security and survival. Dig a little deeper and we get into issues of the survival of “a” or “the” Jewish state. The issues are much more about demography than spirituality.

Nehama Leibowitz addresses our obligation vis-à-vis the land that is more spiritually centered. “This is not just a matter of history but involves for Israel a moral obligation, the responsibility to observe a particular way of life in that land.” (Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers, Nehama Leibowitz at p.401) “You must not defile the land in which you live, wherein I reside, for I, [G-d] dwell among B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 35:34) In a sense how we live in the land and even how we as Jews live outside the land – how we live our Jewish values – presents as somewhat of a litmus test for whether or not G-d allows us to continue to live in the land. Does our present focus on establishing borders serve the purpose for which we as Jews possess the land?

In regard to abortion and reproductive rights I am on the board of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, a four-state regional board including: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the western half of Missouri. In Missouri where I live it is virtually impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion. Likewise, Arkansas and Oklahoma have recently passed similar legislation tantamount to completely outlawing abortion services. Amongst my own concerns are whether I can counsel congregants seeking advice on abortion-i.e., whether my state of Missouri will allow me to follow Jewish law in prioritizing the health of the mother over the fetus in utero.

Kansas presently has within its borders (emphasis added) abortion established as a Constitutional right. A vote is coming up in Kansas on August 2 to take away that right and give carte blanche to the state legislature to further regulate (regulations already exist) or outlaw abortion in the state.

I live in Missouri but can walk one block to get my morning coffee in Kansas. It is somewhat mind-boggling that a single block can render a completely opposite outcome for women. Yet, where we stand right now there are state borders which exclude reproductive rights, and state borders seen as last lines of defense in protecting those rights.

My struggle with borders continues in this arena. Do state or international borders serve to protect or exclude and are there moral considerations that should not be bound by arbitrary borders? Do borders place us closer to fulfilling our religious mission, or do those borders serve as an obstacle to fulfilling that mission?

Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.