Seeing the big picture
TorahParshat Matot Masei

Seeing the big picture

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

(File photo)
(File photo)

Whaaaaaat?!?!? [Insert needle scratch sound here.]

There are a lot of head-scratching moments in the Torah, but for my money none is greater than this moment in Numbers perek (chapter) 32, Parashat Matot. After suffering in Egypt, after receiving Torah, after 40 long years of struggle and marching, battling enemies, facing hunger, worries over water, the moment has arrived. The Israelites — we, the Jewish people — have finally arrived at the Land of Israel. We have stopped marching and set up a final camp before we enter the Land of Israel that we dreamed of for 40 years, that our fathers and mothers dreamed of for hundreds of years. We finally will be under the thumb of no one, finally free to live as free people.

And then comes the needle scratch.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad have cattle, and the land where everyone is waiting is really good for cattle. Could we, the leaders of the two tribes ask, stay here?

Of all the ungrateful, selfish, self-absorbed, inconsiderate requests, Moses says to them! We are about to enter the Land of Israel — and are probably going to war — and you want to just la-dee-dah sit it out over there with your cattle?

No, no, the tribal leaders respond. We will send troops from our tribes with you. We will help you settle. It’s just that after everyone is settled, our Reubenites and Gadites will come back over here to this side of the Jordan. We’ll help because we are all Israelites. We are with you as you settle the Land of Israel. But after you are all set, we would just rather
live here.

I imagine you, dear reader living in Pittsburgh, could easily finish this d’var Torah yourself with thoughts of being supportive over here while half the world’s Jewish population lives over there. And that would be fine. But let’s go a little bit deeper, shall we?

It’s no secret that a lot of Jews are very concerned about the political policies put on offer by the current government of Israel. It is also no secret that policies by various governments of the state of Israel have made life for Palestinians very difficult. We can argue whether those policies are just or necessary another day, but let’s just agree that life for Palestinians in the West Bank is very difficult. It’s worse than difficult, but let’s not get distracted. You add these new policy suggestions on top of the current policies involving the West Bank and a tipping point is reached by many American Jews who just want to wash their hands of Israel and be done with it.

But I think that might be an overreaction. It would be a baby-with-the-bathwater situation. A lot of Jews love being part of the Jewish people. We love Klal Yisrael, this notion that we are all one big people. We love the notion that we were all — all of us — there at Sinai to receive Torah (and it matters little if you believe it literally, metaphorically, or spiritually). We love the phrase “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh-la-Zeh,” all of Israel is responsible for each other. Yet if we turn our backs on modern-day Israel because of what the current government does, we risk turning our backs on half the Jews in the world. Participation in Klal Yisrael shouldn’t be revoked due to a Jew’s citizenship. I know many Jews who are very mindful not to be Ashke-normative so that they can lift up Jewish culture of Mizrachi Jews and Ethiopian Jews but at the same time are ready to turn their backs on Israeli Jews which is — what shall we call it? — Diaspora-normative, and that doesn’t seem right.

There has to be a way to make it clear that we Jews in America actually care about the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

At the very same time, we care about the lives of Jews who live in Israel, and, at the very same time, decry the anti-democratic

policies suggested by the current government.

Surely we can be sophisticated enough to care for our people, to support the idea of self-determination for the Jewish people, and be livid at the anti-democratic policies being protested. The tribes of Reuben and Gad figured it out. They were in for the big picture, not so in for the details.

The analogy is not perfect, far from it, but our parasha this week reminds us not to make grand statements without nuance. It reminds us we can advocate for this and support that at the same time and in our own way. It reminds us that we should never give up on our people — actual people — and raise our voices to leadership. We can do both. We have to do both. PJC

Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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