TORAH READING OF THE WEEK – MATOT-MASSEI
The contemporary relevance of the decision by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh to reside outside the Land of Israel — And Moses ruling on their request without input from God.
This week’s Torah reading is a goldmine of both legal and narrative information worthy of years of intensive scrutiny and study.
Matot opens in media res, with verse 2 of an oddly truncated Numbers Chapter 30, and devotes 16 verses to the laws of ‘neder’, oaths of abstention.
Chapter 31 describes G-d’s order for the Israelites to avenge themselves against Midian, the subsequent victory, and the inventory-taking and division of the spoils. Clearly this is a massive victory as only 12,000 troops were sent into battle, yet after every one of the Midianite men, boys and non-virgin females (and this was a highly licentious society) were killed there still remained 32,000 female virgins who were spared. Hence one can deduce the numbers and the strength of these five kingdoms of Midian prior to the invasion.
We now come to, what I consider, the most important and one of the most puzzling episodes since the Exodus, the request by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh to set up shop outside of Eretz Canaan. It is this narrative that I would like to discuss from two different aspects; the literal story and what makes it relevant today; and aspects of the story that should beg some very serious questions.
Two and a half tribes (Gad,Reuben and half of Manasseh) apparently very wealthy and loaded with cattle prefer the rich grazing lands of Yaazer and Gilead, and decide they want to settle where they are, rather than in the Promised Land. As they tell Moses; “This land should be given to your servants as a holding, do not have us cross the Jordan” (32:5)
Moses is enraged, accusing them of repeating the sin of the spies “when I dispatched them” (32:8), and that this request would “diminish the resolve of the Children of Israel from crossing into the land that G-d gave them“. Clearly Moses is here taking responsibility for having sent the spies in the first place, and is rebuking these tribes as one would the wicked son of the Passover Haggadah, accusing them of excluding themselves from the ‘klal’.
The problem is resolved when these tribes offer to not only participate, but take the lead in the conquest of Canaan, but only after first building their sheepfolds. Moses then declares that if they do not live up to their promise to lead the way into the battle for Canaan their punishment would be to have to settle in Eretz Israel proper (“And if they will not cross over as fighters with you, then they shall settle among you in the land of Canaan“- 32:30)– which hardly seems a fate worse than death, to be forced to live in the Promised Land, heaven forbid.
We live today in a strange Jewish world in which a significant percentage of identifying, observant, Israel-loving Jews choose to live in the diaspora. No doubt there are those who simply cannot afford to settle in Israel. But then there are many who can easily do so. They buy luxurious homes that drive up real estate prices so that those who actually live here cannot afford homes. They send their children here for yearlong, all expenses paid parties called ‘gap year yeshivot’. They breeze in for Sukkot and Pesach (unless there is a better deal in Miami Beach) as if they own the Land. Yet, they make no sacrifices for the Jewish State while using it for all it’s worth.
Moses is incensed by such selfishness. He realizes that all this does is make those who actually live in Israel feel like ‘fraierim’ (suckers). Is it any wonder that New York, LA, Miami and London are full of ex-Israelis who do little to enhance the image our State, when there is no price to pay and no shame in raising English-speaking children on distant shores with, at best, a tenuous connection to the Land? Is it not pathetic when ex-Israelis gather for a Passover seder in New York or New Jersey and nostalgically sing their old army songs while their barely-Jewish kids yawn on the sidelines?
Yet who is to blame for this sorry spectacle?
The fault can in large measure be placed on the shoulders of diaspora Jews who can afford to buy the very best of Israel while paying the very least for the privilege.
The solution to this problem is in our parsha. Moses seems to acquiesce to the power of unfettered greed, but not without first exacting a price. If anything, the sons of willfully Galut Jews who ‘love’ Israel should be on the front lines when they turn 18, not partying for a year in a country that is protected by their peers, while being fed nonsense by opportunistic rabbis, and doing make-believe ‘chesed’ on alternate Tuesday afternoons.
So much for contemporary relevance.
Now let us analyze the narrative itself which is remarkable in key aspects. As you will recall, the parsha begins with G-d’s ordering an attack on MIdian which is to be followed by Moses reporting in for the conclusion of his life on earth. Up to this point Moses never takes matters into his own hands, and is always consulting with G-d even regarding minor matters such as the inheritance of the Daughters of Zelaphehad which is reprised in Pashat Massei (36:6-10). Yet when it comes to something truly major, even deal-breaking, such as the demand by over ten percent of the Israelites to NOT settle in the land promised them by G-d himself, Moses chooses to make the decision on his own. There is no hint of him consulting with the Almighty. Astounding!
Furthermore, Moses’ initial response already demonstrates that he will capitulate. If not, why did he not simply say “NO”? How dare Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh even think of rejecting G-d’s promised land – a land they had not yet even bothered to see for themselves – simply because they are greedy for easy grazing for their huge wealth of livestock. Can there be any greater hutzpah than this?
Ad then when Moses accepts the terms they offer, namely to lead the invasion into Canaan, he declares that should they renege they would have to live in Eretz Israel proper, as if this were indeed a punishment.
Can it be that Moses does not consult G-d because he knows his next appointment with the Almighty is the termination of his leadership? Could it be that by sort of annexing Gilead to the Land of Israel, Moses is somehow insinuating himself in the Land despite G-d’s declared wish for this not to happen, i.e. he is creating facts on the ground?
That this is all very troubling is to seriously understate the case.
I would like to conclude with two verses from Parshat Massei which require no explanation and are terrifyingly relevant to this very moment in time:
And should you not dispossess the inhabitants of the Land from before you, and it shall come to pass that those of them who shall remain will become like pikes in your eyes and like thorns in your sides. And they will disturb you on the Land which you inhabit. And that which I imagined to do unto them I shall do unto you. (Numbers 33:55-56)