Parshat Matot-Mas’ei

In our combined Sedra this Shabbat, the Jewish Nation’s unity seemingly faces its toughest test since Chet haM’raglim (the sin of the Spies) just as we are about to embark on the culmination of forty years’ hopes and dreams.  Eretz Yisrael is within sight, just across the Jordan.  We have waited four decades, amid peregrinations marked so far by 41 distinct journeys through the Sinai, and now comes the pay-off: we all are about to enter the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.

Well, not exactly.  It’s just never easy with us.

The tribe of Gad has enormous wealth in cattle, and they are muscular. (Rav S.R. Hirsch on Dvarim 33:20-21.)  Tracing back to Zilpah’s first born, they are happy to stay right where they are on the east side of the Jordan.  Reuven, stemmed from Leah’s first born, follow Gad’s lead.  Milk, they have.  Honey, they don’t need. Rather, they want grazing pastures, and they are standing on them.  They ask Moshe Rabbeinu to establish their portions right where they are. (Bamidbar 32:1-2)  Had they not asked, Moshe may well have left that land unpopulated. (Ramban on 21:21) even though it is intended for Cities of Refuge (arei miklat) and other holiness.

Moshe is furious.  In a remarkably long excoriation, running nine p’sukim, he reminds them why everyone has been wandering these past thirty-nine years.  We have been through this drama before, and no one is shouting “Encore!”  The Spies, having perceived themselves as mere grasshoppers beneath the foreboding gazes of giants, were so convinced that the landed nations would smash the Jews that they managed to terrify virtually all their generation’s men into weeping and refusing to cross the Jordan.  And now Reuven and Gad seem at it again.

Only this time really is different.  Acting with the wisdom of Pirkei Avot 5:9, they refrain from interrupting Moshe’s adjuration, but they thereafter explain themselves.  To paraphrase: “No, this is different.  We need this land here for our cattle — also, by the way, it’ll be nice for our wives and kids.  But we stand ready at this Moment of History alongside everyone else.  We agree to cross the river among the first fighters, to remain on the battlefront throughout all conquering.  We just want the grazing land.” (Midrash Rabbah on 32:16 derives from how they prioritized their wording that they cared more for their wealth than for their children.  Moshe at v.24 had to set their priorities straight.)

The land east of Jordan (eiver haYarden) comprises a great deal more territory than the two sh’vatim (tribes) alone can settle, so one-tenth of the Menashe tribe, stemming from Rachel’s first born, subsequently joins them.  (Ramban on 32:33, although Ibn Ezra believes they were with Reuven and Gad from the start)  Menashe’s Machir household in particular is mighty, and they apparently volunteer to help populate and protect the land that the Jordan would separate strategically from the dominant population in Eretz Yisrael. (Abarbanel on Joshua 16:1)  Moreover, by settling two of Menashe’s households on the east, while nine-tenths of the shevet would be liberating and dwelling within the mainland west of the Jordan, Menashe would assure the forging of a religious and cultural bridge across the river to keep the topographically separated Reuven and Gad connected with the Jewish People.  Menashe uniquely could sustain dividing its population on both banks because that tribe had enjoyed a 70 percent demographic increase since y’tzi’ayt Mitzrayim (the Exodus), the largest proportional growth of any tribe. (Bamidbar 1:35 and 26:34).  Still, Menashe’s influence on the east bank was less significant. (Radak, Rashi, Metzudat David on Josh. 13:8)

Moshe is relieved.  There will not be another cowardice rebellion and another 40 years of retracing steps or 41 more journeys.  The people will stick together this time and hold.  It’s going to be OK.  (Moreover, Moshe is unaware that one group within Gad specifically wanted to remain on that eastern land because they knew Moshe would be dying and buried there, and they did not want to leave his resting place Judenrein. Yalkut Shimoni on Zot haBrakhah #962)

Although the 2.1 tribes enjoyed the numbers to send 100,000 soldiers across to join with their brothers, only their fiercest 40,000 ultimately were requested.  (Chida on Joshua 1:14) They proved themselves devoted to the national enterprise and even sought assurance from Yehoshua of his own fidelity to G-d and Torah. (Radak on Josh. 1:17).  They fought valiantly through seven years of conquering and even remained another seven years until all tribes had received their respective heritage parcels of the national patrimony, waiting until Yehoshua invited them to return eastward to their families.  (Vilna Gaon on Bamidbar 32:31, Alshikh on Josh. 22:3)  Yehoshua blesses them with success.

On the way out, they will construct a huge monumental altar on the western bank, erect within the mainland of Jewish settlement.  Josh. 22:10.  The altar, too huge for operational purposes, would be their Monument to see from their homes across the river on the east, much as people in Jersey City could see the Twin Towers across the Hudson and as people in downtown Los Angeles can see the “Hollywood” sign. A society’s values chooses their inspiration.

The Altar Monument briefly sparked a flurry of concern among the other tribes that it portended plans for alien worship east of the Jordan.  Pinchas the Kohen, who bore the mantle of G-d’s Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), led a blue-ribbon delegation that confirmed and certified the noble purposes of the Monument. (Josh. 22:13-20)    It would inspire for generations, reminding the tribes in the east that their spiritual base lies across the Jordan.

Everyone lived happily ever . . .  — for a while.  When we let down our spiritual guards and commitment to G-d and Torah, we risk losing all, and so they did.  In time, a civil war would divide the nation.  The Northern Kingdom, dominated primarily by sinful kings, saw the tribes on the east bank return to their earlier focus on material possessions. When destruction came at the hands of Assyria, those tribes — Reuven, Gad, and one-tenth of Menashe — were uprooted the first, scattered into history among the nations.  (Vilna Gaon on I Chronicles 5:26; Tanchuma on Matot #5)

Today, as Torah Jews, we are animated by our history, tragedy, and possibilities for restored greatness to struggle as best we can to prevent the segregated and isolated Jews of our time from becoming new lost remnants.  We see them: the wandering assimilated, the revelers at Hollywood and Broadway soirees, those on J Street asking American leaders to pressure Israel, the sad photographs of skull-capped fellows under wedding canopies solemnized by clergy not of our faith.  In so many other American places where the wealth of sheep and cows blind them to their Torah heritage and our core traditions, practices, and values, it falls on us to remember that we are all in this thing together, including the Jews on the other side of the river.

Rav Dov Fischer, Adjunct Professor of Tort Law and of Civil Procedure at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County.