Parshat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

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As we conclude the Book of Numbers, we read for the first time of any part of our people expressing a desire to take leave of the other tribes. We have already read about how the nation sinned, complained, and disagreed with each other – but this is a whole new level. The tribes of Gad and Reuven want to separate from the rest of the tribes and settle on the east side of the Jordan river. The reason is primarily economic: they owned a great deal of livestock, for which the land was particularly suitable.

When the two tribes approach Moshe with this request, he is reminded of the sin of the spies. He retells the story of the spies at length, and expresses his fear that the tribes may be punished in the same way the previous generation had been punished for its misdeeds.

Without mincing words, Moshe accuses the tribesmen of discouraging the rest of the Israelites from entering the Promised Land: “Why do you discourage the People of Israel from crossing over to the land that Hashem has given them?” Later, he says, “And behold, you have now risen in place of your fathers as a society of sinful people, to add to the wrathful anger of the Lord against Israel.”

In essence, he is telling these tribes that they are repeating past mistakes, and that they had not learned anything from history. Although he has the sin of the spies in mind, Moshe opens with a different argument: “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here?”

What kind of argument is this? Is it based on religion, emotion, or ethics? What about its timing? Some of our sages suggested that none of the other tribes would agree to fight for the Promised Land, knowing that two tribes are spending their time far from the front lines, sprawled on grassy pastures as they listen to the shepherds playing their flutes as their flocks meandered about.

Knowing that the entire nation would never agree to such an arrangement, Moshe imagines that they all might simply prefer to stay on the eastern banks of the Jordan, after being discouraged from entering by their brethren in the tribes of Gad and Reuven.

Yet the simple explanation for Moshe’s argument is that it would unethical for only part of the nation to shoulder the burden of conquering the land, when another part does not participate at all.

In Tractate Pirkei Avot, our sages say that “bearing the burden with your fellow man” is one of the ways to “acquire Torah” (“kinyan Torah” in the Hebrew original). That is to say, one of the ways for a person to acquire Torah and its content is to share another person’s burden.

This is an important thing to do as ethical human beings, but the acquisition of the Torah, by its very nature, is supposed to be an intellectual endeavor involving constant devotion to intensive study. How does this tie in to sharing others’ burdens?

Often, people that encounter the mitzvot of the Torah feel that one specific mitzvah, justified as it might be, does not suit them at the moment, or that it may be appropriate for most other people, but not to them.

Maimonides (Rambam) addresses this sentiment in his philosophical treatise, Guide to the Perplexed, when he states that sometimes, the Torah issues mitzvot addressed to the majority of the population, and that individuals might feel that those mitzvot are not right for them.

That is precisely when sharing other people’s burdens becomes a central tool in acquiring Torah: knowing that although the things the Torah says are not addressed to me as an individual, I am committed to upholding this set of values because I recognize that I am part of a nation, and I, with my limited perspective, do not judge whether a particular commandment is just.

This is how Moshe begins responding to the tribes of Gad and Reuven. How, he says, can you let your brethren go to war while you remain here? Are you staying here simply because that is what is most convenient for you? Such behavior not only runs contrary to the most fundamental human values. It also undermines the very underpinnings of our existence as a nation, particularly considering that we are the nation who accepted the Torah.

Moshe’s call was heeded, albeit partially, by the tribes: “We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the People of Israel until we have brought them to their place.” We will form the vanguard of the Israelite army when it goes to battle, they say. This seems like a fantastic compromise: the two tribes are accepting responsibility and joining combat units, and in so doing, are shouldering the burden alongside their brethren.

Yet, one verse earlier, the tribes say, “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children.” In other words, they are saying that they will stay here, and serve in the army when needed. True, that is better than nothing, but it is far from satisfactory.

Sharing the burden goes beyond fighting wars side by side. The principle applies during peacetime, as well, and when we squabble between ourselves over issues that divide the various tribes. Thus it is only natural that this connection won’t last for too long.

Several decades later, in her evocative song, Deborah the prophetess, says “… but among the divisions of Reuven, there were great resolves of heart. Why do you sit between borders, to hear the bleating of the flocks? At the divisions of Reuven, there are great searchings of heart.” How could Reuven have allowed the Jewish people to fight Sisera, she says, when it remained behind, with its flocks, and listened to the whistling of the shepherds?

Long distances ultimately take their toll, and it is no coincidence that many of the children and grandchildren of those who took part in all of the struggles to establish the Jewish state, both physically and financially, are no longer involved in what transpires here.

Living overseas with their livestock spiritually distances people from what is happening in Israel. Today, our historical role is to try to reconnect the tribes living beyond the sea to the Land of Israel, the Promised Land, before we lose our connection with the rest of our nation.

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