Collective Solidarity in Matot-Masei

There is a common thread running through many of the diverse subjects in our double Torah  portion, Matot-Masei.  Shortly before our ancestors enter the Land, thought must be given to communal solidarity, and how those with disparate desires and needs remain connected. The tribes of Reuven and Gad, eventually joined by the half tribe Manasseh, ask to receive lands on the eastern side of the Jordan river. Moses is initially angry because he thinks they intend not to participate in the conquest of the Land of Israel.  He relents, after they make it clear that they will take part.  Interestingly, many commentators continue to criticize these tribes for being more interested in material well-being than in the spiritual blessings of the Land of Israel.  Rashi and others feel that they seem to be more concerned about their cattle than their own children. Soforno says that Moses consents in order not to create dissent.

Our portions discuss how to allocate the Land between different tribes, and provide cities for the Levites, who will not be landowners.  In a time when blood feuds could pull societies apart, our ancestors are commanded to allocate “cities of refuge” for those who kill accidentally. However, there is no refuge for intentional murderers.  A week ago it was ruled that the daughters of Tzlofkhad could inherit, in a world in which property was for males only, because their father had no sons. However, this is now diminished by a ruling that they can only retain their property if they marry within their tribe, so as not to upset the balance between the tribes. Women still suffer inequality today, but women in at least some parts of the Jewish world can inherit and own property.  Many forms of privilege and advantage continue to come with land ownership, except there are now additional forms of wealth that carry with them disproportional privilege.  The Torah does command us to resist a society showing deference to the wealthy and powerful, but that only underscores that this is a human reality.

Of course, another great challenge is where we draw limits on communal solidarity.  All too often in Israel, calls for “the unity of the People of Israel” are open or hinted at declarations that the border of solidarity is the border of the Jewish People.

This week Israeli television carried the story of a single and formerly abused mom, and her five children, evacuating her apartment, with nowhere to go.  They were making ends meet, until the mother and her older children all lost their jobs because of corona.  If they had public housing, they would still have a roof over their heads.  However, as we have always argued, this is one of the reasons why housing subsidies are problematic . The paltry sum they were receiving was far from enough to find an apartment, even in Ashkelon. Supposedly there is a moratorium on evictions during the corona crisis, but that isn’t always the reality. And, if those of us working for the rights of Israelis living in poverty never used to have much of a thought for apartment owners, the fact is that not all of them are super wealthy. Some of them depend on rental income to make ends meet.

Just as in our Torah portion, building communal solidarity today entails negotiating the complicated balance of competing needs.  Having said that, anybody watching the family carting their belongings off to the local park, and the nine year old saying that it won’t be so bad to sleep in a car on the beach, realizes that communal solidarity was nowhere to be found. Our portion also teaches that, while communal solidarity must be based on an ethos and a desire for solidarity, it also must be supported through regulations and institutions that institutionalize the mechanisms required to sustain solidarity.

I have written previously from hearing from Palestinians and Israelis early on in the pandemic that corona teaches us that what unites us is greater than what divides us.  That didn’t last long.  This week a Hebron testing center being built on land donated by a local Palestinian as his expression of communal solidarity received a demolition order.  Inside Israel, the jury is still out.  Yesterday, Minister Tzachi HaNegbi finally apologized for saying two weeks ago that the idea that there are Israelis experiencing hunger is “hogwash.”  It remains depressing that he said he just hadn’t realized, until he was flooded with letters containing personal testimonies. Solidarity requires awareness. Awareness comes when we care enough to search out what is not always right in front of our eyes. After the government announced on Wednesday that all Israelis will receive financial grants, regardless of need, to stimulate our endangered economy, many Israelis have declared that they will be turning over the money they receive to those who truly need it.  I hope that happens.  The sentiment is real, but it remains to be seen how many will know who and how to give, and will follow through.  We will see whether solidarity will be expressed when everybody is left to their own devices,  without supporting regulations.

Finally, the story of the daughters of Tzlofkhad is not just a story of women fighting for some level of rights in a world where they were semi property. It is that, and we also see that in the ability of men to annul the vows of women under their authority at the outset of our portion (although not required to do so.) However, at another level, taking male inheritance laws as a given, it is also story of balancing between collective needs and the needs of individuals.  As somebody who has dedicated his life to human rights, I have sometimes seen how the insistence on individual rights can be at the expense of collective rights, or vice versa.  The current Israeli dilemma about whether there can be any restrictions on the right to protest in the middle of a pandemic also raises questions about how one defines collective rights and the collective good. I have already pointed out that establishing the borders of the collective can be very problematic, and that we need to internalize that we are also one human collective.  However, as much as I believe that an unwillingness to compromise any of our individual rights for the sake of the collective is simply trying to give a principled face to selfishness, more harm has probably been done to individuals throughout history in the name of the collective, than the other way around. Ultimately, our definition of what is good for the collective must take into account each individual.  Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes about the cities of refuge:

The Land of God’s Torah is given to the People of God for the sake of the human being. The most  precious fruit of the Land.  The goal and purpose of the blessing that God blesses her with is that the Land will sustain every human soul; For the human being carries out God’s Torah with the means that the Land provides. The Land is given to every member of the People of God on the condition that they honor the holiness of every human life, for every human life is holy in the Torah…immediately upon the conquest of the Land…there is the obligation to create the legal institution that is already mentioned in social legislation in Exodus 21:13. (Hirsch commentary to Numbers 35:10)

 Writing as he does about the connection between the Land of God and People of God, I am not sure how Hirsch would draw the boundaries of our collective. I choose to read Hirsch as saying that the responsibility of the Jewish collective in our homeland is to honor every member of the human collective.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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