From as early as I can remember, Eretz Yisrael has been synonymous with home for me. Although it only became my physical home at the age of 9, my parents always spoke about this magical place with love and passion. From bedtime stories to songs around the Shabbat table, their palpable yearning instilled within me an intrinsic understanding that no matter where we were at the present moment, we were always on our way home.
Every year, when this week’s Parsha rolls around, these sweet and simple childhood sentiments are stirred, along with an awareness of the complexity of the challenge with which we have been tasked. How does a nation survive thousands of years estranged from its beloved ancestral homeland? How does a family remain connected when scattered across every corner of the earth? How does a people weave foreign languages, varied traditions, and conflicting values into one, cohesive story?
In Parshat Matot, the two-and-a-half tribes – Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe – approach Moshe Rabbeinu and ask for permission to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, beyond the designated borders of the Promised Land. After all, they have lots of cattle, and the newly conquered land is full of luscious, green pastures.
“וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִבְנֵי-גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן: הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה.”
“And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brothers go to the war, and you will sit here?” (Numbers 32:6)
Moshe’s harsh and direct response to their seemingly simple request still echoes in the air today. As the archetypal leader, I strongly believe that Moshe was not trying to lay a guilt trip on the tribes, but rather probing the depths of their hearts: “Do you honestly believe that our people can remain united when one part of the family has to fight for their future, while other family members sit comfortably abroad?”
We don’t have to rack our brains to see how this pattern has continued throughout the tumultuous history of our people. Despite significant differences, in many ways, we are still in the midst of the same long and draining war for our homeland that began so long ago. While this battle is often an existential fight for survival, it is also a struggle to actualize our potential as a nation, to fulfill God’s will on earth, and to determine our fate and identity.
At the risk of sounding anything but loving to my brothers and sisters around the world, I firmly believe that the collective identity of our people is formed in only one place: the land that was promised to our forefathers in an unprecedented covenant between the Infinite and the finite, the earth that will forever hold the imprints of our ancient footprints, the eternal focal point of our dreams and prayers, whispered in gas chambers in Europe, sang in souks in Morocco, and remembered at every Jewish wedding and funeral around the world until today.
To be clear, I live in endless awe and appreciation of many aspects of Diaspora Jewry; the creativity of devoted educators passing on the beauty of our tradition in a foreign culture, the strength to remain proudly Jewish in the face of rising anti-Semitism, the courage to stand with Israel on campus, and the constant commitment to supporting the development of the modern State of Israel. Plus, how can any of us judge those who did anything it took to simply survive?
But now is our time to thrive, not survive. And we can’t do it without each other. Imagine even a fraction of our fellow brethren currently dwelling in the exile made the not-so-simple journey home, bringing the passion, pride, and values of their personal Jewish homes into the collective Jewish Home. When I close my eyes, I can envision the glow of the Holy Land bursting into a radiance we’ve never seen before. The fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the Ingathering of the Exiles could shift reality on levels we can’t even begin to comprehend.
Moshe Rabbenu is sending an eternal message to the Jewish people around the world; it is not just rebuke – it’s an invitation. Join us in writing the next chapter of the story of your people, of our people, in the place where it all began, and the place where it will inevitably end – whatever that may look like. Bring your values, talents, and dreams; your criticism, pain, and demands. We’ll make space for everything. It won’t be easy, but with enough love and collective dreaming, we can make it work.
Moshe begged the two-and-a-half tribes to always remain a part of the family, to show up when needed, to take part in the failures and triumphs of the nation on the other side of the river. So many years later, we echo his plea. So much has changed, yet when we talk about the eternal people in the eternal land, everything remains the same.