Being there in spirit
Parshat Matot Numbers 30:2-32:42
In this week’s Torah portion, representatives of the Tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses. They have prospered on the east side of the Jordan. They have many herds of cattle, and they worry about keeping their wealth when Israel moves together across the river into Canaan.
“Favor us,” they say to Moses, “by giving us this land; do not move us across the Jordan.” Moses is not pleased with this request. He chastises them by asking, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay (settle) here?”
But Reuben and Gad are not easily deterred. They remain strong in their resolve. They assure Moses that although they hope to remain outside of the Promised Land, they will assist in the conquest. They will act as chalutzim, fighting alongside their brethren. When it is over, and “every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion,” they will return to their side of the Jordan. They will make no claim on any land west of the Jordan. Essentially, they will support Israel without in fact living there in the land.
This word chalutzim is a rather ambiguous term. Its biblical meaning is quite different from that of today. In our Torah portion, chalutzim means “armed fighters” in the sense that Reuben and Gad agree not only to assist but to lead their brethren in conquest. They will battle at the forefront of the people of Israel, tying their immediate fate to theirs even if ultimately their lives will not intertwine.
In contemporary Hebrew, chalutzim has a very different meaning. Today, when we talk of chalutzim, we speak of pioneers, those at the forefront of activity. We think of those who forged new paths for others to follow. In particular, the word chalutzim recalls those men and women who gave so much of themselves in the early days of Jewish statehood, in the time when Palestine became our beloved Israel.
Our Torah portion stresses this first meaning — that chalutzim are fighters who will battle for one’s people. But our biblical example — that of Reuben and Gad — forces us to ask a difficult question: Can we be considered chalutzim if ultimately we choose not to enter the Promised Land, but instead live on the other side of the river? In other words, can the tribes of Reuben and Gad — can we — remain a part of the people of Israel if we do not dwell among them?
The answer is yes. We do not have to live in the Land of Israel to be part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Like Reuben and Gad, we too remain a part of the community of Israel. We too are chalutzim because we support Israel through our many actions on its behalf. We visit. We study its history and strive to understand its complex political system. We provide financial support; and during difficult times such as this, we pray for its well-being by giving much-needed emotional and spiritual support as well.
Our biblical ancestors Reuben and Gad did not abandon the people of Israel by remaining on the east side of the Jordan River. Neither do we neglect our duty to Am Yisrael, our fellow Jews, by residing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Reuben and Gad became chalutzim, those at the front of the battle. We too must become chalutzim, by being at the forefront of supporting Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. May we be with Israel like our ancestors were: in action and in spirit.
Rabbi Jessica E. Locketz is the associate rabbi of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.