A continuing connection

A continuing connection

Cantor Henry Shapiro
Cantor Henry Shapiro

Parshat Matot-Masei,Numbers 30:2-36:13

This week’s parsha of Matot continues the shift in narrative from the wilderness of Sinai to the upcoming entry of the tribes into the Promised Land.

As the people of Israel passed through lands of Jazer and Gilead, two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad along with half of the tribe of Manasseh make a proposal to Moses and the high priest Eleazar. They wish to settle in this land on the other side of the Jordan rather than going on to Israel proper. Their explanation is that this a land perfect for cattle and they have much cattle.

Moses’ first reaction is negative, that they are abandoning the other tribes who will be going to war again shortly. We have seen a number of rebellions during the 40 years in the desert and at first glance, this looks like the beginning of yet another. Indeed, Moses reminds them of the bad report by the 10 spies of the previous generation and how this action would again divide and dishearten the people. They are together embarked on the goal of coming to their own land, and this holy mission has been sustaining them all for these many years in the wilderness. Now, it would seem these few tribes are striking off on their own.

 At this point, many rabbinic commentators weigh in with unfavorable opinions of the two-and-a-half tribes. One explanation given by Rashi is that they are materialistic. Since the story begins with a mention of their very great multitude of cattle, the implication is they are preoccupied with the wealth that represents.

But does this story need to be framed in such extremes, as good or bad or in black and white terms? We all know the expression, “two Jews, three opinions.” With 12 tribes, there are bound to be multiple points of view. In the previous chapter, the war with Midian concludes with the capture and division of over 600,000 cattle. They are not the only tribes with much cattle and concerns with caring for them. The cattle will be the basis of their livelihood, and it’s not hard to see this land’s appeal.

There’s a classic discussion in the Talmud on the balance between spiritual and materialistic needs. It’s summed up in the phrase — Im ein kemach, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein kemach. If there is no bread, there is no Torah. If there is no Torah, there is no value to bread. I think this is one of the first instances in the Bible where we can draw this principle.

Whereas we lived for 40 years in the desert with manna and received the Torah, now we come into the real world and have to make a living. This is not abandoning ideals of Torah but taking up the day-to-day realities so that we have the wherewithal to support our ideals.

As this chapter progresses, we see a negotiation back and forth between Moses and the two and a half tribes. Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh agree to fight in the upcoming wars. Their active contribution and support allows them the land they desire and avoids conflict. More important, it earns them a place with the people of Israel and a continuing connection to the group as a whole.

This story may also be seen as a metaphor for Jewish communities around the world and the current State of Israel. It was once thought after Israeli independence, all Jews should move there. That it was the rightful place for them. The two-and-a-half tribes found a legitimate place outside Israel and yet maintained their connection. They not only fought for the group as a whole, but fought in the vanguard, in the front of the battles. I believe strong Jewish communities around the world strengthen Israel, too. Sometimes, that even means that we fight in the vanguard, out in front.

Cantor Henry Shapiro is cantor of the Parkway Jewish Center. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.