“Coming and Going” Parashat Mattot / Pinchas 5779

The Tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moses and submit a request to remain in the Transjordan, an area newly captured from the Amorites and the Bashanites. The land is lush, they own much livestock and they no longer want to enter the Land of Israel along with the rest of their brethren. They tell Moses [Bemidbar 32:5] “If it pleases you, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not take us across the Jordan.” Not unexpectedly, Moses is not pleased. He launches into a lengthy diatribe [Bemidbar 32:6-7]: “Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage the Children of Israel from crossing over to the land which G-d has given them?” Moses then retells the story of the spies, who were too frightened of the Canaanites to fight them and ended up spending the next forty years wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses concludes with a prophesy of doom [Bemidbar 32:15]: “If you turn away from following Him, He will leave you in the desert again and you will destroy this entire people.” This time it won’t be for forty years – this time it will be forever.

Taking a closer look at Moses’ words, it seems that he is missing a critical point. Moses sounds like an officer reprimanding his troops for requesting not to go on a mission. He cannot allow any soldier to stay behind. It would have a devastating effect on the morale of the rest of his troops. It is not for nought that most armies shoot deserters. But here’s the thing: Moses could have used the exact same words had Reuven and Gad requested not to take part in the Tet Offensive to attack the Viet Cong. But these people were not on their way to Vietnam – they were on the way to the Land of Israel, their future national homeland, their destiny. Everything that the Jewish People had undergone since the day G-d told Abraham to “Leave your land… and go to a land that I will show you” had been leading up to this very moment. And now they were frittering it away. Why does Moses not chastise them for this? Why does he not mention the Land of Israel by name even once?

One might suggest that the Transjordan was considered part of Israel. Indeed, G-d promises Abraham [Bereishit 15:18] “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River”. However, this promise never came to fruition[1]. The official eastern border, as defined by the Torah [Bemidbar 34:12] “…continues down along the Jordan River, and its ends is [the Dead Sea]”. The Jordan River is the “official” border from a halachic standpoint. For instance, crops that grow on the west bank of the Jordan River are subject to tithes while those that grow on the east bank are not. Similarly, a person living on the west bank of the Jordan River will be reading Parashat Mattot this week while a person living on the east bank will be reading Parashat Pinchas. The upshot is that the Tribes of Reuven and Gad were choosing Teaneck over Tel Aviv, Broughton Park over Beer Sheva, and Johannesburg over Jerusalem. And yet Moses says nothing.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century, offers a way ahead. Rabbi Hirsch is discussing the silver trumpets that Moses is commanded to build back in Parashat Bechukotai. The trumpets serve as a sort of public address system and are used when a message needs to be relayed to the entire nation. One of these messages is a Code Red alert [Bemidbar 10:9]: “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you[2], you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before G-d and be delivered from your enemies”. Rabbi Hirsch notes that the Hebrew for the words “are at war” in this verse is different than most other times the phrase “go to war” is used in the Torah. Nearly always, the Torah talks about “going out” – “tetze” – to war[3]. In its discussion of the STEBS (Silver Trumpet Emergency Broadcasting System), the Torah talks about “coming in” – “tavo’u” – to war. This term is used in only two other places in the entire Torah: [1] In its discussion of the War against Midian [Bemidbar 31:21] “Elazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting (ha’ba’im – literally ‘who had come to the fighting), ‘This is the ritual law that G-d has commanded Moses’” and [2] in Moses’ diatribe to the Tribes of Reuven and Gad “Shall your brethren go to war (ya’vo’u – literally ‘come to war’) while you stay here?” Rabbi Hirsch explains the difference between “going to war” and “coming to war”, using the silver trumpets as his source. Regarding STEBS, the Torah describes “an aggressor who attacks you”, clearly referring to a battle that is taking place on Israeli soil. In such a case, we have not come to war, rather, war has come to us. There is a seminal difference between a war that takes is fought on home soil and one that is fought on enemy soil: A war fought on enemy soil is a war of choice while a war fought on home soil is a war of necessity. The late Charles Krauthammer wrote, “Wars of choice – Vietnam, Kosovo, even the Gulf War – are fought for reasons of principle, ideology, geopolitics or sometimes pure humanitarianism. Passivity might cost us in the long run. But we do not have to go to war. A war of necessity is a life-or-death struggle in which the safety and security of the homeland are at stake.” When the enemy is at the gates – when the “aggressor has attacked” – the war is one of necessity. It is existential. The trumpets must be sounded. The people must mobilize so as to pray to G-d for salvation.

The war against Midian was a war of necessity. The Midianites had prostituted their women in a cynical attempt to turn the Jewish People to idolatry. In an ensuing plague, twenty-four thousand people die. Half of the Tribe of Shimon is wiped out[4]. As long as the Midianites were around, the vestiges of sexual promiscuity and paganism would linger. To spiritually purify the camp, the source of the impurity, the Midianites had to be expunged.

Similarly, when the Jewish People stood with Moses at the Israeli border, they were also facing a war of necessity. The land was filled with Canaanites. They were well-armed and posed a formidable foe. Forty years earlier, the spies had seen these “giants” and were petrified. A war against the Canaanites would most surely be protracted and bloody. The Tribes of Reuven and Gad were proposing an alternative: Why bother fighting a holy war against the Canaanites when we have just defeated the Amorites and Bashanites? Why can’t all we live here? The land is lush, the weather is nice, and the neighbours are friendly. When Moses rhetorically asks them, “Shall your brethren come to war”, he is telling them that the assault and capture of the Land of Israel is not a war of choice – it is a war of necessity. The Jewish People as a nation can live nowhere else but in the Land of Israel. We need the Land of Israel to live the same way we need oxygen to breathe. This is not subject to choice or convenience. It is a metaphysical reality. And so when we must fight for the land of Israel, we do not “go to fight” – we “come to fight”. Moses, the ultimate teacher, the ultimate prophet, managed to encapsulate this idea in one short word.

The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [5a] enumerates three gifts from G-d that are acquired only with yisurim, suffering: Torah, Israel, and the World to Come. After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Jewish People captured the Land of Israel only to have it stripped from them eight hundred years later by the Babylonians. After two thousand years of wandering since the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, with G-d’s help we have recaptured and resettled our land. This gift does not come for free. Our existence in Israel is questioned each and every day. We are subjected to rocket fire, burning kites, and UN resolutions. And so each and every day we must “come to fight”. We sound the trumpets, pray to G-d for salvation, and fight the good fight. We would have it – we could have it – no other way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Rabbi Yoel Elitzur discusses this discrepancy at length in https://www.etzion.org.il/en/parashat-mishpatim-destined-borders-land-israel.

[2] The translation the JPS translation taken from the Sefaria site. The Chabad translation is slightly different: “If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you…” The JPS translation fits in better with Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation, as we shall soon see.

[3] See, for instance, Devarim [21:10] and Devarim [23:10].

[4] Compare the population of the Tribe of Shimon in the first census [Bemidbar 1:23] to their population in the second census, taken forty years later [Bemidbar 26:14]. They were gutted.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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