It’s all too easy to recruit the story of Gad and Reuven’s request in chapter 32 to rant about the way wealth and comfort can trump the Zionist dream. I know, because I’ve delivered the rant myself. And when I’ve refrained from sharing this thought out loud, I’ve felt it deep in the pit of my stomach, while praying in Diaspora synagogues, and hearing people ask over and over again to be returned to Zion.
But the story doesn’t really accommodate such a simplistic polemic. For starters, Moshe raises none of the objections we might expect from a good Zionist when initially chastising the tribes for their suggestion. He doesn’t say anything about giving up on the holiness of the land, or about not being part of the destiny of the Jewish people.
It’s hard to imagine that Moshe, whose deepest desire was to cross the Jordan and enter the land with his people, was indifferent to these concerns. To hear tribes voluntarily giving up on what he so desperately prayed for must have been deeply disappointing. Nevertheless, the negotiations end with Moshe agreeing to the founding of the first official diaspora community. Before the Jews even enter the land, the existence of a diaspora is legitimized, so long as it meets the conditions that Moshe sets.
Condition 1: Recognize that you’re in the diaspora. The children of Gad and Reuven try to introduce a narrative in which God’s inheritance, nachala, is not limited by the boundaries of the land of Israel. Some tribes inherit in the land, and some out of it. Moshe consistently refuses to use this language, preferring the term achuza. You can hold onto this land, you can live there, you can even be in God’s presence there, but make no mistake about it. The land you live in is not the promised land, and your choice can’t be allowed or used to discourage others from choosing the land of Israel.
Condition 2: Live up to your responsibilities as part of the nation. You must not only refrain from having a negative impact; you must make a positive contribution along with the rest of the nation. Living in a different place doesn’t absolve you from taking part in the national project of the Jewish people- building a society in Israel by the light of the Torah. Apparently, that doesn’t necessarily require that every tribe live in the land. But they must be ready to make an equal contribution, and even to occupy a position of leadership through their contribution.
Condition 3: Worry about your children before your property. The commentators pick up on the subtle reframing Moshe offers. While the tribes speak of building for their herds, and then for their children, Moshe switches the order. Even if the choice of diaspora begins from financial considerations, Jewish continuity will often demand sacrificing financially for the sake of your children. It’s a demand whose difficulty is felt acutely these days in the American Jewish community.
Meeting these conditions is the necessary prerequisite for choosing not to enter the land. There will be much more to say about the challenges to Jewish unity the choice entails, but that will have to wait for the book of Joshua.