Monday, July 14, 2014

Thoughts on Mattot and Israel

This week we will be reading from parashat Mattot. It tells us that after a long journey of wandering in the wilderness, nearly forty years, the Israelites now stand on the gates of Canaan. The land they have heard about for generations, the land they are poised to take to fulfill the promise, the covenant God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

However, just as they are about to enter, something quite curious happens. The tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses and state, "Bring us not over the Jordan" (Numbers 32:5). As Pinchas Peli writes in his book Torah Today[1], "They do not say openly that they want to separate themselves from the rest of Israel, who are heading towards the Land; all they want is to be exempted from the personal obligation of aliyah...

The reason for this request was because the Children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a great multitude of cattle. Or to put it another way, they had too much wealth invested in the country in which they now lived.

Moses responded with a sharp rebuke, "and therefore will you turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the Land which God has given them?!" (Numbers 32:7).

Moses was concerned that this act by Reuben and Gad would undermine the confidence of the rest of the Israelites. He was also concerned with the notion Reuben and Gad would not align themselves to the common defense of the Israelites. Only when they stated, "we will not return unto our houses until B'nai Yisrael have inherited every man his inheritance" (Numbers 32:18).

With these words, Moses was willing to agree to the terms set forth by Reuben and Gad. Only if they were willing to fight on behalf of all of Israel would Moses allow them to settle outside of Israel.

One of the central tensions for us Jews living in the Diaspora, meaning anywhere outside of Israel or New York City, is the question of how do we stand by Israel during her times of need?

We, unlike Gad and Reuben, cannot simply gather up arms to go and fight the good fight. And even more than that, we struggle with the question, as liberal Jews, as to, when there is human suffering, is it a ‘good fight’ to begin with?

In 1948, in 1967, and in 1973, there was no doubt that Israel’s very existence was at stake. We collected millions, and Jewish-American servicemen went over to provide military knowhow, experience and expertise to this fledgling nation.

Today, Israel is a technological and military giant in the region. Israel will soon be sending us money to help Jews in the United States remain Jewish. Clearly, Israel needs something else from us. As Jews, I feel it is our new responsibility to help others understand what is really going on during this current crises. It is easy to point blame at Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the victim. That narrative plays out well, especially in many media sources.

And yet, it is a narrative that overly simplifies the complexities of what is going on. We know that Hamas is a terrorist organization that uses its own people as human shields. We know that if Hamas stops the rockets, Israel will stop attacking Gaza. But there are certainly many out there who do not grasp this narrative. And it is imperative for us to use our voices through conversations and social media to help explain this core notion. There is plenty of blame to go around on both sides, and the fault does not merely lie with Israel as too many would want us to believe.

But at the same time, we still need to maintain a sense of compassion towards all of those who are suffering. People with dreams, hopes, and aspirations are in pain because of the failures of their leaders. This is especially true in Gaza where terrorists have placed their weapons of evil next to homes, schools, and mosques to bring about mass causalities. They are deserving of our compassion even if we cannot comprehend the purpose of their cause.

We learn from Mattot, the importance of standing beside Israel, just as Reuben and Gad did, even though they, like us, were in the Diaspora. We also learn that Israel needs us to work to change the narrative of the current conflict to one that is more balanced, recognizes nuance, and also contains context. But we should also be doing this with a sense of compassion and a sense of hope. This conflict will eventually come to an end. There will be quiet in the land, at least for a little while. Loved ones will be buried, and cities will be rebuilt. And we will continue to be here to stand by Israel until the day that true peace reigns just as Gad and Reuben stood by Israel in the days so long ago.

[1] Peli, Pinchas, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, Washington D.C., B’nai B’rith Books, 1987, 189-191.

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