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Parashiyot Mattot-Masei 5781

July 9, 2021

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

A D’var Torah for Parashiyot Mattot-Masei
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Hodesh Tov. The height of summer is upon us, and with it three weeks of mourning bookended by fasting during a season we most need to be drinking plenty of fluids. I have written elsewhere before about my ambivalence over Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks, and this year is no different. This Shabbat, we read the second of three Haftarot of Affliction, along with Parashiyot Mattot-Masei. These Haftarot admonish the Israelites for their constant idol-worship and warns of the conquering army on its way to punish them. This cycle of community dissolution and rejection of HaShem, followed by destruction and diaspora, continued in the days of the Second Temple, and so we read them in the oppressive heat of summer to remember the fall of both Temples and the many expulsions and attempted genocides of our people, as we arc toward the ninth of this Hebrew month.

One of the lessons I do appreciate around Tisha B’Av, is the warning against sinat hinam (baseless hatred). We learn in Yoma 9b that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the wanton hatred among the children of Israel, and that this dissolution of community is equal in sin to the idol worship, greed, and forbidden sexual relationships that brought down the First Temple. The rabbis of course agree with the Prophets that these destructions were brought about by Divine Will. However, I would also argue from a historic/academic point of view that the disunity among our people led to idol worship and depraved behavior and left the nation vulnerable to attack even without direct Divine intervention. When we stick together, we are stronger for it. We know that Jews can never and will never agree 100% but we can remember how to disagree respectfully and still come together around the most important centers of Jewish life: communal study, honoring the Divine will as we understand it, and repair of the world (Torah, avodah, vegemilut hasadim).

In this week’s Torah portions, Parashiyot Mattot-Masei, we read that two of the tribes (Reuben and Gad) want to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Chapter Thirty-two of Numbers tells us of the request and how they are granted this request so long as they still enter the land to help the rest of their people settle safely into the land apportioned to them by God. This compromise seems to me a fitting example of the sort of communal peace necessary to avoid the sinat hinam we learn about leading up to Tisha B’Av. The land on both sides of the Jordan was good, and some of the Israelites did not see the need to leave it. However, they consented to still send their fighting men to aid the rest of Am Yisrael achieve their destiny. They could have defected. They could have denounced their allegiance to Am Yisrael. Moses could have refused their request, or there might have been threats of plague in response, as happened with the cowardly spies and with Korah and his followers earlier in the book of Numbers. And yet, none of that happens. The compromise is made fairly swiftly and peaceably. Both parties follow through. Reuben and Gad, as well as the portion of Manasseh that ends up joining them as well, remain part of Am Yisrael even if they are out of bounds of the previously given Eretz Yisrael.

As our country struggles to reunite after some very divisive recent years, I pray that as Jews we can be leaders in this effort, at the very least leading by example. This is the season now to be reconciling and preparing our souls for the season of teshuvah around the corner. This is the time to stamp out all senseless hatred and to come together as a community. May we find compromise and comfort, abounding love and steadfast commitment to each other and to Judaism, and may we see an end to the destructive powers of hate, greed, and violence.
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat. She was ordained at AJR in 2016.