Mattot Masei and the challenge of connection


Community Dvar Torah by Andrew Nusbaum

Throughout the summer, community members from B’nai Emunah have been invited to present their thoughts on the weekly Torah session. A longer version of this drash was given in the middle of July by CBE Treasurer Andrew Nusbaum.

We are almost at Tisha B’Av, when we traditionally mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as other assorted tragedies that have occurred in Jewish history. One of the central questions of Tisha B’Av has been what the Jews did to “deserve” these punishments, and the rabbis identified “baseless hatred” as the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. Hatred of whom? Of fellow Jews.

Andrew Nusbaum

Andrew Nusbaum, treasurer and board member at congregation B’nai Emunah.

Where does this kind of hatred come from? I would suggest it comes from a lack of understanding and a lack of connection. Once you don’t feel connected to someone, it is all too easy to find the bad in everything they do.

The parsha for this week illustrates this dynamic as well– both how easy it can be to lose connections, as well as how one has to work to keep them intact.

Moses and the Israelites have camped near the Jordan river and are making preparations for settling the land once they cross into the Land of Israel. He is approached by representatives from the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who tell him that they have decided that they would like to stay where they are, to take advantage of the good grazing land. In effect, they are asking to be the first Diaspora Jews.

This is rather surprising– to Moses, and to us! After all that they’ve been working for, all the wandering, all the struggling, now right before the last big push, Reuven and Gad want to opt out! Much like a friend or relative of someone who undergoes a major life shift, or the parent of a child who decides that they would rather do something other than what others might have considered “destined” for them, Moses is left confused and, we sense, a little hurt.

His first reaction is to become defensive and antagonistic, accusing them of selfishness, of not only abandoning their fellow Israelites right before their next campaign but also dishonoring God, repeating their ancestors’ sins of not being committed to settling the land promised to Abraham. The rabbis go one step further, attributing the request from the two tribes as being primarily motivated by greed and a desire for material wealth. This seems to be a classic case of people going against the ethic taught in Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

And yet, the point made by Reuven and Gad is not entirely without merit: while Israel may be the land promised to the Israelites, the land they are standing on in Jordan is no less a gift from God, no less part of God’s creation. In a way, the two outlying tribes seem to be asking a very modern question: Is it possible to do God’s will in an unexpected way, or an unconventional place? Are the people of Reuven and Gad any less a part of the Israelite nation if they live on one side of a river versus another?

After a longer conversation Moses’ position seems to soften. In exchange for taking on more responsibilities, for agreeing to serve as “shock-troops” for the larger community and not resting on their laurels while letting their fellow Israelites do the heavy lifting, Moses agrees to the tribes’ request– with a few key adjustments. First, the rabbis note that he rephrases the chieftains’ promise: rather than building stables for their sheep and towns for their children, Moses tells them to provide for their children and then their sheep (emphasizing their obligations to their families, and by extension, the other Israelites, rather than just their economic prosperity, represented by their sheep and cattle).

The second adjustment is the addition of the half-tribe of Manasseh, who have not been mentioned in the conversation up until this point. One interpretation of this change comes from R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last dean of the famous yeshiva of Volozhin. Rabbi Berlin points out that the two tribes have already shown a tendency towards separating themselves from the rest of the community, first, by requesting to be physically apart, and second, by the implication that they value wealth over loyalty. R. Berlin argues that by assigning Manasseh, a tribe who did not ask to stay behind, to the same territory, Moses is trying to keep the two tribes connected to the larger nation, both culturally as well as spiritually.

How do we stay connected to each other? How do we deal with the reality of divergent goals, priorities or beliefs, and yet still try to remain united as klal yisrael? Especially now when, like Reuven and Gad, we are all in some way “in the wilderness,” being pulled in myriad directions by other claims to our time, beliefs or resources?

Responsibility is a funny thing. Lots of times, people only see it through the prism of a deficit. We notice when someone else is not living up to their responsibilities, but very rarely do we look at it through the other side. The Talmud says, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”, all of Israel are responsible for each other. While this principle can sometimes be used to justify criticism of those we disagree with, I’d like to challenge us to look at it through a different lens: rather than thinking of it in terms of what someone else is doing wrong, what if I took it instead as a reminder for myself? What if when I thought about someone I disagreed with or who I felt was falling short of their responsibilities I tried to remember that, as a fellow Jew, I also have responsibilities towards them? If not to agree with them, then to at least try to understand or connect to them?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend Bay Area Limmud, a three day Jewish festival of learning. Over that weekend, and particularly during Shabbat, I got to see real inter-denominational engagement in practice. It’s all well and good to talk about Jewish unity in theory, but going to a place like Limmud helps you see how much actual work and thought it takes to make it happen on the ground.

During that weekend I wound up connecting face-to-face with lots of different Jews: I helped make an Orthodox minyan; I ate meals with people who practice Jewish yoga and celebrate Shabbat with guitars and chanting; I attended text study and philosophy sessions where I saw kippot of every size and shape (as well as plenty of people without them). On the last day, I heard a panel of Israeli activists from across the religious and political spectrum talk about using text study to break down boundaries between them, as well as their ongoing work to help Jerusalem’s various communities stay connected with each other despite growing tensions.

I believe the key to Limmud’s success is that they deliberately operate with an atmosphere of openness and nonjudgmentalism. No one group “owns” the knowledge or authority at Limmud. That’s not to say that there aren’t stark differences in beliefs or practice. But by deciding to spend the weekend together, the participants agree to enter into a tactic agreement to prioritize connection with each other versus demanding the right to be correct.

These notions of mutual obligation and responsibility are not always fashionable in our modern age of individualism and our increasing tendency towards ideological uniformity, but I think they continue to be relevant, particularly for us as Jews. We all operate with a multiplicity of identities, loyalties, and beliefs, and it would be dishonest, to say nothing of unrealistic, to ask people to ignore or shut off parts of themselves in the name of unity or loyalty. It is not appropriate to demand that everyone pray the same, vote the same, or, say, live in Israel– After all, not even Moses demanded that!

But, at the same time, we must work against the all-too-easy temptation to let individual autonomy become a cover for self-satisfaction or isolation. Not only does considering other perspectives help us stay connected, it also benefits us by keeping our own views and practices from becoming rote or stale. If we want to fight for our right to live and think as we wish, we must also be committed to engaging with those who live differently, even if– perhaps especially if– that requires us to push ourselves little bit on our end. We can remain on our side of the river, but not at the expense of forgetting about those on the other side. As we finish the book of Numbers, I would like to encourage us all to continue reaching out and stay connected with each other.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *