In March 2017 I was invited to address a large delegation of foreign diplomats and Members of Parliament from around the globe at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The focus of the gathering was “Diasporas 2017”, a joint exploration of strategies and methods for enriching and strengthening the bonds between “the motherland” (whichever country that was to each person in the room) and the Diaspora of that said country – those citizens who have chosen to relocate abroad.
I was tapped to facilitate a session on “Diaspora Giving to the Homeland” and from within my role as Head of the Fundraising Unit at The Jewish Agency for Israel and from my experience at The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and elsewhere, I led this broad spectrum of international guests into the world of Jewish community philanthropy and the very significant, durable (albeit very regularly tested) ties between the State of Israel and Israelis and Jewish people and Israelis living abroad.
Most astonishing to many of course was that this sense of belonging that so many Jews around the world feel, does not find its source in the majority of cases from having lived in Israel nor ever had Israeli citizenship. Neither their parents nor their grandparents.
One might suggest a unique unidentifiable connection stretching back far and ingrained even deeper.
Ingrained perhaps in the first of two Torah portions we read this week (Mattot) as we witness a tense standoff and negotiation between Moses and the tribes of Reuven and Gad who, as the whole nation stands ready to enter the Promised Land for the first time, ask to stay outside, on the other side of the Jordan where they say “it is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock… do not bring us across the Jordan”. (Numbers 32:4)
Moses hits the roof (not the rock this time). He rebukes them for their apparent disregard for the remainder of the nation. What about the whole? What about the collective mission to enter the land promised to us and conquer it?
“Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dissuade the heart of the Children of Israel from crossing into the Land that God has given to them”? (32:6-7)
Stark accusations indeed but not without context and painful scars of an earlier mistake-ridden generation in the desert who cried out at the thought of entering the Land after most of the spies returned from their expedition and spoke badly and distrustfully of the task ahead and the land that awaited them.
That cost the Jewish people another 40 years in the wilderness and Moses feared deeply that this new request would be a catalyst for more steps backward.
Come the tribes looking to settle “abroad” and clarify their request. “We shall arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of the Children of Israel until we have brought them to their place… We shall not return to our homes until the Children of Israel will have inherited, every man his inheritance…” (Numbers 32: 17-18)
Moses, leader of the whole nation, accepts their request and grants them permission to “build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flock” – in that order and not animals (“livelihood”) before family as the two tribes had recklessly phrased their petition earlier.
The most recognizable leader of the Jewish people, the greatest of our prophets gives permission to the establishment of Jewish communities outside the then borders of the Holy Land.
However only on certain conditions which Moses lays out passionately, accompanied by a Biblical carrot and stick:
Every armed man among you must cross the Jordan and conquer the Land and only then can you return to your homes across the Jordan river. Do as agreed and “then you will be vindicated and this Land shall be a heritage for you… but if you do not do so, you will have sinned to God”. (Numbers 32:22-23)
Relations between a country, a citizenry and its Diaspora should be so cherished, cared for like an irreplaceable treasure. We are responsible one for the other even if we live in separate countries and perhaps even very different lives. There is a fine line between peace and blessing on the one hand, and needless tension and division on the other.
I am inspired each and every day by those today who raise their families, build their communities and inspire others in every corner of the world including in Israel, but who never take their eyes off their sisters and brothers across oceans.
Like many generations before us, today we live among giants who never stop working on behalf of and giving generously toward a bright and safe future for Israel, Israelis and Jews around the world.