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For the mind everything is in the future, for the heart, everything is in the past.
– Andrey Platonov
Three groups do not enter the Promised Land. First, those of the generation that left Egypt, who are doomed to die in the wilderness after the episode of the spies (Num. 13:1–15:41). Next, Moses and Aaron, in rebuke for Moses’ striking the rock (20:1–13), will join the fate of the first group. Finally, in this week’s reading, as we approach the final stages of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, two tribes refuse to settle in the Promised Land. Each group is unable to let go of a critical piece of their past. Their identity is tied to their history and not to their destiny, and that traumatic bond costs them their rightful inheritance.
What is identity? How much of myself is me, and how much is what I have acquired along the way? We are all amalgams of the people, ideas, and events that have influenced us. We have been taught wisdom; we have been influenced by folly. We have fallen under the influence of teachers as well as of those who would do us harm. We have acquired moral values, but bad habits, too. Where does my experience end and my self begin?
As we saw at Mount Sinai, seeing is not believing. It assures us that something did happen, yet holds no guarantee for the future. Like an infant whose mother has left the room, when Israel is not face-to-face with the Divine Presence, it panics. It reverts to type – which is to say, a foundering sense of no-self. And it happens in an instant.
The episode of the spies (chs. 13–15) reveals a society immobilized by old fears and reverting to the unstructured, floundering society of an enslaved people. At a time when leadership is most critical, no one steps forward. The spies bicker over what problems might lie ahead, taking their eyes completely off the goal, and the people melt in despair.
The Torah returns often to themes of our inherent lack of abiding faith; the need to physically see a manifestation of the Divinity, and the inability to carry over reliance on God’s promise. To extrapolate future good from past protection. In effect, an inability to grow up.
The incident of Moses’ striking the rock occurs in a weekly portion set thirty-eight years after the preceding episode, the rebellion of Korach – thirty-eight years during which the Israelites camped in one spot in the wilderness and God has not spoken to Moses. Suddenly called upon to take charge, Moses, who at his core is a man of spontaneous action and not of words, sees the people in crisis; a crisis so great that God has reentered the picture. Perhaps it is the urgency of the moment, perhaps it is frustration after decades of God’s silence. Whatever the reason, Moses acts instead of speaking. He strikes the rock.
In this week’s portion (ch. 32), the tribes of Reuben and Gad request that they be allowed to settle outside of the land of Canaan. They possess great herds of livestock, and the lands across the Jordan – that is, to the east of the Land of Israel – are ideal for grazing. They ask to settle there so that they can manage their livestock. The structure of the dialogue is itself revealing; recall the importance of genealogies in understanding biblical characters. Reuben and Gad will forego the apportioning of the land of Canaan into what will become the hereditary tribal portions of Israel.
Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, should be entitled to the double portion of inheritance as well as the leadership of the children of Israel. Instead, he was shoved aside. Joseph, born next to last, was treated as the firstborn, while Reuben lost the leadership of the brothers to Judah. In the narrative of the sale of Joseph, Reuben is so isolated that he doesn’t even know that Joseph was drawn out of the pit and sold. Reuben doesn’t know until the moment that Joseph reveals himself in Egypt that his brother didn’t perish in the pit. He seems utterly severed from his role in the family, cut off from both father and brothers.
What of Gad? Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, are locked in a contest of giving birth (Gen. 29–30). After Leah gives birth to four sons, Rachel offers Jacob her maidservant as a concubine. In response, Leah does the same. The first result of the union of Jacob with Leah’s servant is Gad. Thus, Reuben is the firstborn of Jacob, while Gad is the firstborn of his own mother.
As the Jacob story twists in and out of traditional family relationships, Joseph and Judah supplant Reuben as firstborn. The Torah will state in Deuteronomy (Deut. 21:15-17), in a clear reference to Jacob, that the biological firstborn of the father is to be designated as prime inheritor, even if the father doesn’t love his wife. Reuben and Gad are both “firstborn” sons – the biological firstborns of Leah, and of Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah. Their descendants have acquired excessive wealth in the desert, setting them apart from their brethren. But the text pushes the envelope still further. Though Reuben is the firstborn, the tribe of Gad is mentioned first (32:2, 6): “The Gadites and the Reubenites came and spoke to Moses…. Moses said to the Gadites and the Reubenites….” Despite his wealth, Reuben continues to live in the shadow of his brothers. Four centuries after the upheaval in Jacob’s family, the first still remains last.
At first, Moses objects to the brothers’ request: “Your brethren will go out to do battle while you sit here?” (32:6–15). He compares the request of Gad and Reuben to the spies, saying they too dissuaded the Israelites from taking possession of the land; which is why, thirty-eight years later, the children of Israel are still in the wilderness.
The Gadites and Reubenites promise to build pens for their livestock and cities for their children and to then take up arms and be in the vanguard of the Israelites invading the land of Canaan. The word livestock appears four times in the first four verses of this section. Now, “we’ll build pens for our livestock here, and cities for our children” (32:16). The rabbinic commentary pounces: Gad and Reuben have put their wealth before their families, and themselves before the rest of Israel. If Reuben and Gad have reverted to type, what “type” is that?
The descendants of Gad and Reuben remember all too bitterly, and cling desperately to, their ancestors’ slights: Reuben, dropped from his role as leader of the family, and Gad, born after Rachel’s maidservant has borne two sons. The stigma of Jacob’s rejection clings so powerfully to their descendants that even now Reuben can’t step forward.
Joseph, as the youngest at the time, was forced to remain with the sons of the maidservants: Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher, while the other brothers tended the flocks, and Joseph “would bring evil reports” about them to Jacob (Gen. 37:2). Joseph was seventeen years old at the time; the sons of the maidservants were older. As the sons of Jacob’s concubines, they did not have rights of inheritance commensurate with the sons of formal wives, and therefore it would not be unusual for the four sons of the maidservants to be apart from the sons of the wives. But why does Jacob keep Joseph back? In the society of his day, a lad of seventeen was fully engaged in the hard work of the clan. Jacob manipulated Joseph, making him spy on his brothers.
The relationship of Reuben and Gad to the rest of Israel is underscored in Moses’ valedictory blessings (Deut. 33:6, 20–21). Reuben’s is the feeblest of the blessings accorded to the tribes: “May he live and not die, and remain to be counted among the population.”
By contrast, Moses inverts birth order, blessing Gad before Dan and Naftali: “Blessed is the One who expands Gad,” says Moses. “He chose the first portion…he headed the people, doing God’s righteousness and laws with Israel.” Gad receives high praise for his past actions and encouragement for his future role.
Moses grants Reuben and Gad’s request to settle on the east bank of the Jordan on the condition that they march in the vanguard of the conquering Israelite army. Once the Land of Israel has been conquered and the tribal lots apportioned, they will be permitted to return to their stake. Moses also settles half the tribe of Manasseh together with Gad and Reuben. The text gives no explanation, but the genealogy is revealing.
In last week’s portion, five sisters from the tribe of Manasseh come before Moses (27:1–11). They are the daughters of Zelophehad, a man who died without a male heir. “Our father died in the wilderness,” the sisters tell Moses. “He was not among those who rebelled with Korach, nor did he worship the Golden Calf. Why should his name be left out, just because he has no son?” God tells Moses that Zelophehad’s daughters should take possession of their father’s share in the land. This establishes a new law: that women stand in the legitimate line of inheritance – such a revolutionary concept that the Torah gives it its own episode for emphasis.
Zelophehad’s daughters connect not merely with their father’s memory, but with a yearning for the Land of Israel. They stand before Moses on the eve of the land’s being conquered and apportioned. This invokes Jacob, who instructed Joseph to take him to Canaan for burial, as well as Joseph, who instructed the Israelites to carry his bones out of Egypt for burial in the Promised Land. Manasseh, Joseph’s son and Jacob’s grandson, is born in Egypt. His name means “forgetting.” Joseph named his firstborn in gratitude to God, “who made me forget all my tribulations and my father’s house” (Gen. 41:51).
Yet Manasseh has not forgotten the ancestral yearning for the Promised Land. It is Manasseh’s descendants, the daughters of Zelophehad, who plead for their own inheritance in the Land of Israel.
Our identity is built of our memories, both the ones we consciously recall and the ones that lie buried. Buried within the ancestral memory of Manasseh – “forgetting” – is the vision of the Promised Land. From this ancestral vision sprouts a passion, and from that passion comes a commitment. Moses divides the tribe most closely identified with the land. Half of them he places within the new Land of Israel, securing their inheritance, but half of them serve to hold their brethren to the greater task.
What is our identity? Where do we return to when we say we are “returning to our roots”? Gad and Reuben show that often our strongest drives, our most powerful motivation, arises from some ancient hurt done to us, some injustice – whether real or imagined doesn’t matter – that leads us to react in the present; often wrongly. Today, many people accept the notion that all emotions are legitimate. Since our feelings are part of us, to deny our feelings will only do harm. But to not examine our feeling is far worse. Our feelings are real; that doesn’t mean they are objectively true.
How do we react in the moment? It is true that Reuben lost his primacy of place, his rightful position as firstborn. It is true that Jacob didn’t love Reuben’s mother, Leah, and wrongly favored Joseph. It is true that Gad was born of a concubine, and therefore not eligible to inherit. The Torah reinforces this point by having the sons of the concubines babysit Joseph, while their brothers – the legitimate sons of Jacob’s wives – tend the flocks that will one day be theirs.
But it is not true that the family dynamic that plagued Jacob’s household needs to carry forward like some defective gene, plaguing his descendants forever. History is not destiny. What did happen does not foretell what will happen. We believe our own fallacies, which leads to impulsive behavior. Leads us to neglect our responsibilities and instead nurse our hurt, the sad child within us. Thus, before we act, we need to understand where our motivation is coming from. In which part of our past does this image reside? What buried pain, what long-hidden anger drives us to act? And when we act out of that long-buried impulse, what dark shadows will we release into the sunlight?
The Promised Land contains everything except the possessions we drag along behind us. Gad and Reuben have great herds and flocks that will not fit comfortably into the new homeland. The situation is resolvable if everyone approaches it openly and with goodwill. But Gad and Reuben, driven by ancestral pain and resentment, are not capable of this. As with Lot and Abraham, no space will be great enough to accommodate the two tribes together with the rest of the nation. Is it because the land cannot accommodate what they own? Or is it that they refuse to share what they have amassed? Are they that jealous of their wealth that they even reject the age-old covenant and promise – here and now, on the eve of its being fulfilled?
As with Lot and Abraham, the physical wealth is not the issue; it is what that wealth represents. Gad and Reuben care about their wealth because they can’t see clearly the emotional scars it represents. They cannot separate their attachment to their possessions from their attachment to the slights suffered by their ancestors more than four hundred years ago. When will we ever learn to let go of our pain, of our resentment?
The Promised Land is waiting.
* * *
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when? – Hillel
Before there was post-modernist literary theory there was the Torah, whose meta-literary structure reflects its message. The Torah’s narrative, poetic, and lawmaking passages are all marked by an astounding economy of language, but also by endless internal cross-referencing, making the Torah both poetically ambiguous and infinitely rich in interpretation.
This week’s portion closes the book of Numbers. It is the end of the omniscient narrator story that began with Creation and has brought the Israelites to the borders of the Promised Land. Deuteronomy will enter into a first-person retelling of the story from Moses’ perspective.
As we bid farewell to the omniscient narrator, we transition from a group led by fiat and designated leaders to a society where individuals rise to the occasion, fight over authority, and take on responsibility, forming new leadership. This is exemplified by Phinehas, who has the zeal and passion, if not the self-control, to take on the mantle of High Priest; and by the daughters of Zelophehad, who speak up for their rights and win the endorsement of God. The sisters are singled out by name, twice in the portion in which their story takes place, and then specifically at the end of the book of Numbers. Thus, the narrative ends with the names of five women who broke the mold and changed the world forever.
And where are we now, at the end of the narrative? In many senses, we are back where we started.
Moses’ journey parallels Abraham’s in many ways. The story of Israel begins with Abraham about to leave Haran and enter the land of Canaan. It is Abraham’s father, Terach, who actually determines to set out from Ur of the Chaldees heading to Canaan. They pause at Haran – rather too long, it turns out, for Terach dies there, and it is only the further push from God that sets Abraham back on the path.
Similarly, the Israelites left Egypt, headed for Canaan. It has taken forty years, but now they are almost there. Like Abraham, they were sidetracked, putting down roots where they did not belong. Like Terach, those who set out on the first leg of the journey will not live to see its completion. Their children will complete it, but with few exceptions, they will grasp neither the boundlessness of God’s blessing nor the enormity of the task.
Contrast this account of the journeys through the wilderness with the passages describing the apportionment of the land of Canaan among the tribes (e.g., Num. 33:54). God leads every step of the way through the wilderness – the pillar of smoke by day, the pillar of fire by night. But once the people enter the land, they are left to their own devices. God will not lead each tribe to its inheritance, but gives Moses a general schematic for figuring it out. As the Israelites in the wilderness mimicked God’s Creation by building the Tabernacle, they must now take on the ultimate task of leadership. God no longer leads, but stands by their side instead, watching as the newly formed nation makes decisions that will guide and affect their entire future.
We have seen this theme of handing over authority emerging since the beginning of the book of Exodus, where God exhorts Moses throughout the experience in Egypt to take charge, to exercise his own power; the repeated symbolism of Moses’ staff and Moses’ hand concretize God’s urging and Moses’ reticence. Now the Torah gives us a quick recap of all the roads we have come. Life flashes before our eyes, and it all happens so quickly, in the space of a few tightly packed verses.
As Moses’ career comes to a close, God gives him one final command to establish cities of refuge for those who kill accidentally (35:15–34). Not premeditated murder, which incurs the death penalty, but manslaughter or accidental killing entitles the perpetrator to a measure of protection. Without a city of refuge to flee to, someone who accidentally kills another person is fair game for the victim’s relatives – called “the avenger of blood” – who may kill them in retribution. Once inside a city of refuge, the killer is immune from vengeance and remains so until the death of the High Priest, at which point their guilt is commuted and they may reenter society without fear of avenging relatives.
Moses, too, started his career as an accidental murderer. Perhaps his slaying of the Egyptian was an act of momentary passion, of Phinehas-like zeal. Perhaps it was a reaction he could not control; indeed, as we saw when he struck the rock, Moses is a man of impetuous action and few words, subject to fits where he loses control. And it takes but a moment. The day after the fateful encounter with the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses seeks to intervene between two fighting Hebrews, and one cries out, “Do you intend to kill me too?” (Ex. 2:11–15). And so Moses flees to refuge in the land of Midian, returning to Egypt only after the death of “those who sought his life” (Ex. 4:19).
The Torah embeds this in the law of unintentional manslaughter: those who kill accidentally face a lifetime of contemplation of their act. All who act impetuously, who lose control and act without foreseeing the consequences, face lifelong contemplation of their actions. Remorse is itself a social value; the compassionate empowerment of remorse has far greater societal effect than the swift exaction of stern justice.
Moses does penance in exile. His early experience – like Siddartha, on his way to becoming the Buddha, Moses goes out of the palace and sees how people actually live – turns him into a reluctant savior and a highly effective leader. Though there are those who will speak of him the way Casca and Cassius speak of Caesar, Moses does not act out of self-interest or to aggrandize himself, nor does he lose sight of the goal, except in the rare moments when his passion gets out of control. He argues with us for God’s sake, and with God for our puny sakes, and when God tells Moses his death is near, his only request is that the people not be left without a leader to guide them.
Thus, the final commandment, cities of refuge for those whose passions run out of control, is rendered in his honor: Moses, who was a stranger in a strange land, who fled from one exile into another, then led his ragged people into a national exile from which he was not to enjoy or see the redemption. We, who are not made of the same stuff, are given the mercy of refuge among our own people. And just as we sit behind the walls of our city of refuge and contemplate what we have done, our brethren on the outside must also contemplate what kind of society gives rise to murder, to the killing of another human being and to the spilling of one family member’s blood by another.
The Talmud warns us against baseless hatred, saying it was the root cause for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But is there really any other kind of hate? Isn’t all hatred ultimately baseless? Doesn’t hate stem from refusing to accept others as they are? From believing that we know what is right and other people must be forced to concede? Doesn’t hatred arise when we create idols out of our own self-image, when we make our own thoughtless impulses and appetites and egos more important than peace and justice and compassion? When we refuse to accept that we do not control the world and everyone in it?
When will the time come for the creation of the just society which the Torah demands? For all of us to become a nation of priests and a holy people? This challenge is not for Israel alone. You have only to look at the world around you to see how far we are from embracing the Torah’s message.
If not now, when?