Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem
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Israel’s tribes — in the parasha and at the protests (27)

Despite their hostile politics, Israel's 4 contemporary tribes mingle in public spaces as cordially as ever, which gives me hope
Mosaic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Givat Mordechai Etz Yosef Synagogue, Ha'Rav Gold Street, Jerusalem. Wikipedia

This is my 27th consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

In this week’s double parasha, Matot-Masei, the Israelites finally reach the Promised Land, but two tribes, Reuben and Gad, ask to stay on the ‘wrong’ side of the Jordan. They say that the land there is more suitable for raising cattle. At first, Moses objects: Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here (Numbers 32:6)? But he relents when the two tribes agree to serve as shock troops and participate fully in the military conquest of the land. We will not return to our homes, promise the Reubenites and Gadites, until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion (Numbers 32:18).

Uppermost in Moses’ mind, it seems, is the fear that the responsibility for fighting for and defending the land will not be shared equally between all the Israelites. Once the Reubenites and Gadites assure him that they are not attempting to evade military service, he is willing to allow them to live separately from the other tribes. There’s a lesson for us here! But did Moses make the right decision? There are several indications that he did not.

First, this is not the only time family separations were driven by agricultural abundance. Abraham and Lot separated because the land could not support all their cattle, and their herdsmen feuded (Genesis 13:1-13). Lot selected the more fertile territory, but things did not pan out well for him. Sodom and Gomorrah were located in the land he chose. God went on to destroy those two cities and, after the destruction, Lot impregnated his two daughters. They gave birth to the original ancestors of Ammon and Moab, enemies of Israel. Coincidentally or not, the territory chosen by Reuben and Gad bordered on the land of Moab.

Second, unusually for biblical Hebrew, whose sentences generally begin with verbs, the section of Mattot that deals with Reuben and Gad opens with a noun: ‘cattle’ (Numbers 32:1). This isn’t quite a case of putting the cart before the horse, but it does look a lot like prioritizing domestic animals (as property) over people.

Third, the section of Matot about the Reubenites and Gadites and their many cattle is preceded by a description of the booty the Israelites amassed after defeating the Midianites: articles of gold including armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants (Numbers 31:50). Though reminiscent of the items that the Israelites contributed to make the Mishkan, Tabernacle (Exodus 35:22), the gold booty also recalls the earrings the Israelites brought out of Egypt and melted down to make the golden calf (Exodus 32:2-4). Is the juxtaposition of a passage about gold booty with a passage about cattle a warning that this episode too could end with idolatry, or at least gross materialism?

Fourth, the land Reuben and Gad chose was especially vulnerable to attack, and indeed it was among the first of the territories conquered by King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria (2 Kings 15:29).

Israel no longer has twelve tribes, but as others have observed, we still have tribes. To be precise, four: Secular; Religious Nationalist; Israeli-Arab/Palestinian; and Haredi. They were never easy bedfellows, and judicial reform is straining relations between them to breaking point. Many people are asking, not unrealistically, if Israel can survive as a single entity. Since the last elections, I have asked myself that question every single day.

I don’t want to downplay our terrifying situation here. We are in the hands of a corrupt, fanatical government chronically unqualified to govern. Injustices are raining down, and there are many more to come. But I also want to emphasize the disjunction that I – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone – am experiencing between our violent, hate-filled political reality and what life feels like on the ground.

Our Jerusalem apartment overlooks the Mesila, the old railway tracks that are now a public park and promenade. All the world walks by, from secular Israelis, through Haredi potential couples in shidduchim (match-making), to Palestinian families from nearby Beit Safafa. Not everyone feels safe walking here at night (though I personally do), but that’s not my point. My point is that as Israel’s political temperature boils, nothing seems to have changed in one of Jerusalem’s most mixed public spaces. As far as I can tell, the people who felt comfortable walking here before the last elections still feel comfortable, despite the turmoil around us.

On Shabbat, I go to a very small synagogue where the politics are truly mixed. I see several of my fellow synagogue-goers at the weekly post-Shabbat demonstrations, and I know that others are firm supporters of the coalition government. For some, Bibi remains their tribal chief. If anyone there is unhappy about praying together, I’ve seen no evidence of it.

I spent this afternoon at the Ramot Mall with a Haredi niece and her kids buying school supplies ahead of the late summer rush. We’re often there on Thursday afternoons. As one of a minority of women shopping at this mall who does not cover her hair, I stand out. But no matter how tense Israel is on the Knesset floor, I’ve never once experienced – or felt – hostility at Kanyon Ramot.

Finally, based on my own experience outside the President’s House in Jerusalem, the pro-democracy demonstrators are not so much angry (though some certainly are) as frightened and depressed. The wide range of speakers – religious and secular, right wing and left, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Jewish and Arab – are received with respect. Occasionally, but rarely, one side or the other engages in provocation, and someone rises to the bait. There are almost no altercations with the police, and some protesters even thank the police as they leave.  I know that pro-democracy demonstrators have been harassed and even physically injured by counter-protesters and the police, but I personally have not seen it.

I’m not in denial about how bad things are here. I’m not burying my head in the sand. And I’m not saying that if I don’t see it, it isn’t happening. On the contrary, I’m devastated. But still I tell myself that, based on my own day to day life on the streets of Jerusalem, as opposed to the political news I read and hear, there’s reason to hope that contemporary Israel’s four tribes will miraculously hold together. I’m praying for that.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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