We are at the end of the Book of Numbers. In fact, this Shabbat is a double portion. The children of Israel are preparing to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. But two of the tribes, the Gadites and the Reubenites, thought the land east of the Jordan River looked pretty good as a home for them and as an area that would provide good grazing for their cattle. They ask Moses not to move them across the Jordan (Num.32:5).
Moses is not pleased, to say the least. He chastises those two tribes for abandoning the community and not being willing to fulfill the mission that God had planned for them. The Reubenites and Gadites explain that they want to build sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children. They assure Moses that they will send their men as shock troops to help their brethren conquer the land. They also promise Moses that they will not return to their families until they have taken the land. Moses more or less warns them they better do what they’ve said or they won’t be able to take possession of the land they want east of the Jordan. The two tribes reiterate they will do what they have promised.
Isaac Arama, a commentator of the 15th century, asks why Moses did not apologize once he understood the Gadites and Reubenites were not abandoning the other tribes in taking the land. Arama suggests that Moses was right to be angry. While the Reubenites and Gadites were willing to assist the other tribes, they had given up on the land. They did not see the spiritual value of Eretz Yisrael. They were only concerned with the economic value they saw in the land east of the Jordan.
This past June, events in the Middle East, with Israel’s raid on the flotilla trying to break the blockade on Gaza, have once again splintered the Jewish world (and as usual had the world at large opposing Israel). There are those in the Jewish world who feel the blockade is wrong, period. There are those in the Jewish world who feel Israel has the right to do whatever she needs to do in order to defend herself, period. And then there are those all over the spectrum in between. There are times I feel we are like the Gadites and Reubenites, enjoying our position outside the land, supporting Israel from a distance, to whatever degree we support her, but it is not the same as if were actually there in the land. Admittedly, even Israelis are not in agreement over the recent events, proving the adage, “two Jews, three opinions.” Yet those who live in Israel do have a more vested interest in the land and their personal survival than those of us Reubenites and Gadites who have found better grazing outside Israel.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)