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Two Tribes

07/20/2017 01:30:40 PM


After almost 40 years in the desert, the Israelites were just months from entering the Promised Land.  They had been victorious in the first skirmishes against the nations on the “other side” of the Jordan (the “East Bank”, today's northern Jordan and Syria).  Parashat Mattot (the first half of this week’s double portion) records an uncomfortable exchange between Moses and the tribes of Reuven and Gad.  These tribes wanted to settle on the land that they had already conquered, rather than entering Canaan itself.   This dialogue can lead to useful insight into today's relationships between Jews living in the land of Israel and the Diaspora, at a time of tension over prayer spaces at the Kotel and the recognition of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad had a logical reason for their request- they owned large herds, more suitable for the open ranges of Transjordan than for the land of Israel, and had already done their share of conquest.  However, in Moses’ eyes, by not entering the Land, they put the entire nation at risk.  He responded with dramatic criticism of these Israelites, accusing them of being disloyal to God and their brethren and sowing cowardice and dissent.  
Reuven and Gad were not shaken by Moses’ criticism.  They responded that, to the contrary, their loyalty was unwavering.  They had already  been heavily involved in the defense of the nation.   Indeed, one explanation as to how they had so much cattle was that they were among the most aggressive in fighting the enemy as the Israelites passed through that area, and therefore ended up with more cattle as spoils of war!

The two tribes responded positively, and promised that they would serve “double duty.”  As the Israelites entered the promised land, these two tribes would be the vanguard, helping with the conquest, even though they had already conquered the lands where they would live.  Furthermore, they would leave behind their own children and cattle in order to go and fight for the people, but asked that Moses recognize the sacrifices they would make in doing so.  Moses accepted their response, and encouraged half of the tribe of Menasheh to join them.

I read this story in the light of the evolving relationship between the American Jewish community and our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Sometimes, American Jews may feel like we are being presented with the same criticisms or demands that Moses expressed to Gad and Reuven.  An ocean away, we are protected from some of the existential threats that concern Israelis on a daily basis.   We are expected to do our part to help in the development  and protection of the Holy Land, even if it is not our intent to live there.  On the other hand, like the warriors of  those two tribes, our resources are divided.  We face our own existential threats.  We cannot worry only about those in the land of Israel- we have our own families and flocks here, and they are at spiritual risk if too much of our focus is diverted from them.
It is fair for our brothers and sisters in Israel, like Moses in days of old, to expect our support.  However that support must be reciprocated.  In the days of old, it was a recognition that families and flocks needed tending as well.  Today, we ask for acknowledgement that we, too, have earned a place of  inheritance in the Holy Land- a place to pray where our families can feel at home.   Our children cannot be made to feel disloyal for asking that they be recognized as Jews when they come to the Jewish state.  Moses realized that for the Jewish people to remain whole, there had to be a covenant of mutual respect and support between the tribes living inside and outside of the lands' narrow borders.  The need for that covenant is no less today.
Mon, December 4 2023 21 Kislev 5784