Shabbat Shalom: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:1-36:13)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson creditEfrat, Israel – This week’s double portion records how the Jews finally cross the Jordan River on their way to conquer the Promised Land. The tribes of Gad and Reuven and half the tribe of Menashe possess a great multitude of cattle, and “paradise” for cattle is good grazing land, which happens to be what these two and a half tribes find in their present location of Trans-Jordan. They then petition Moses with a special request. “If you would grant us a favor, let this land be given to us as our permanent property, and do not bring us across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32:5)

Moses’ response is sharp. “Why should your bro­thers go out and fight while you stay here? Why are you trying to discourage the Israelites from crossing over to the land that God has given them? This is the same thing your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land” (Numbers 32:6-8). Moses’ reference is an especially damning one: just as the scouts decided to remain in the desert because they lacked the courage and will to fight for the Promised Land, you are acting similar to them by your desire to stay where you are, saving yourselves from the harrowing experience of war. And Moses makes this comparison even though Trans-Jordan is considered to be part of the holy land (Mishnah Kelim 1,10).

What moved these two and a half tribes to remain in Trans-Jordan? According to Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm, they petitioned not to have to cross the Jordan because of their cattle, which expresses a certain degree of materialistic greed on their part; it doesn’t take a great flight of the imagi­nation to see the correspondence between cattle and graz­ing lands in those days to economic opportunities in the work place today.

Why do Jews continue to live outside of Israel, further away than the other side of the Jordan – on the other side of the Atlantic? Because they’ve found good grazing lands for their cattle and it’s a shame to give that up, especially since our present-day descendants of Gad and Menashe rarely question a contemporary Rabbinic authority about their choice. If they did, he would more than likely repeat Moses’ message “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:61).

After all, world Jewry has certainly benefited from the State of Israel, ever since its inception and to this very day. After the Holocaust, which resulted in the tragic loss of 1/3 of our people and 4/5 of our religious, intellectual and cultural leadership, it seemed as if Judaism had finally faded from the world stage of viable “peoples”, nations and religions. The renowned historian Alfred Toynbee called the Jews a “fossil” in the history he published in 1946, the Chief Rabbi of Rome converted to Christianity and immediately following the Holocaust, conversion was rampant on every campus in America.

Not only did world Jewry experience a miraculous renaissance after the declaration of Israeli statehood – and then again with the liberation of Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967 – but Israel is now the greatest provider of religious and educational leadership for Jewish communities throughout the world as well as the most effective fount of inspiration for searching and struggling assimilated Jews whose lives become significantly transformed through programs like Birthright Israel. All of the successful diaspora Jewish communities today owe their development in no small measure to the Jewish State.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama gives a slightly different interpretation.  The author of the Akedat Yitzchak describes the two and a half tribes as practical materialists who nevertheless are planning to eventually join their siblings in Israel’s heartland – but only eventually, not right now. At present, the personal needs of the family and the tribe must come first – until the leader of the family can amass sufficient material goods to make the big move to the middle east a less risky venture. Their personal needs – and not historic Israel’s national needs – must come first. Therefore, Moses took them to task.

The Ohr Hachayim approaches the situation in its simplest, most “religious” terms: suggesting that the two and a half tribes built their argument around Divine intervention: “The land which God conquered on behalf of the congregation of Israel is a land for cattle, and your ser­vants have cattle.” (32:41).  In other words, this is the land that God conquered for us and therefore this is the land we wish to remain in. If God wants us somewhere else, let Him take us there, let Him conquer that land too. Until then, this is where we’re going to stay and this is where our cattle will stay. It is good for our cattle and therefore it is good for us.

In many ways, the Ohr Hachayim’s reading sees the two and a half tribes as being the counterparts of the devotees of Natura Karta.  They are waiting for God Himself to bring them to Israel – and if not God, then at least His Messiah! When God is good and ready to redeem Israel com­pletely, He’ll do it in His own time. Everything depends on God, and we are more than happy to wait it out in our pleasant grazing land until then….

The truth is that Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe had forgotten their history. They cannot rest on their grazing laurels while the rest of the nation fights their wars for them. When the Is­raelites reached the Reed Sea chased by the Egyptian hordes they asked Moses to pray to God. “’Why are you crying out to me?’ God says to Moses. ‘Speak to the Israelites and let them start moving.’” (Exodus 14:15). The sea does not split until Nachshon ben Aminadav and Caleb ben Yefuna jump in.

Similarly, when Moses tells the two and a half tribes that they have to bear arms and fight, he’s really pointing out that God’s promise to Israel is that everyone has to be partners – God with the nation, and the nation with one another, sharing in a mutual responsibility and privilege. At the end of the day, if our fledgling State proves to be even more vulnerable than we think by dint of less manpower in war and a smaller population than is required, Jews will have only themselves to blame for not rising to the challenge offered by the greatest Jewish adventure in 2000 years.

Shabbat Shalom


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