A river runs through it

By Rabbi Yaakov Green
Parashat Matot-Masei

While it was wonderful to celebrate this past Sunday the amazing freedoms this great country provides to us and all its citizens, as Jews we see that so much of the news we consume nowadays and that saturates our social media feeds has been recently inundated with images of the tragedies in Surfside, Florida, and stories of the rabbi in Boston who was brutally attacked. Before these past few weeks, it was stories of blatant open anti-Jewish violence in the streets of major cities under the guise of “pro-Palestinian” rallies. Or ugly comments made by national political figures. We have become more acutely aware recently of the age-old truth that we stand out as Jews, and while it remains true, we shudder at each reminder. 

Unlike so much of the drama we have been reading in the news lately, this week’s double-portion that we are about to read ends the book of Bamidbar/Numbers, and the portion of Matot concludes with a rather undramatic scene of negotiation between Moshe and a select interest group from within the tribes of Israel. However, this short episode gives us important insights into the responsibilities we all have to the disparate segments of the Jewish people, and to the interconnectivity of Jews in every community.

Representatives of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moshe with a request to be allowed to settle the lands east of the Jordan River as their inheritance, and first Moshe rebuked them for their request. The conquest of the land had not commenced, let alone concluded, and he is incensed by the idea that these tribes would allow their brothers to wage war and suffer losses while they blissfully remain uninvolved. Moshe wouldn’t condone such blatant disregard for the fidelity each tribe, each Jew, owed each other. The petitioners then clarified that they had no intention of abandoning their duties to their fellow Jews; rather, they would volunteer to be at the vanguard in the upcoming conquest campaigns, and only after those campaigns would conclude would they then, if given permission, return over the Jordan River to this choice land on its eastern shores. 

The first lesson this offers is that neither Moshe nor the tribes of Reuven and Gad could stomach the notion of “let it be someone else’s fight.” When we read these articles about moments of tragedy or violence against Jews — our reaction needs to be swift and filled with empathy and action, not simply sympathy, resignation and ennui at the frequency of these stories. We need to ask and then answer “what can we do to help?”

The second takeaway can be derived from a peculiar twist introduced by Moshe when he acquiesced to the petition. Instead of simply granting permission, he recruits a portion of the tribe of Menashe to join the other two tribes on the eastern side of the river after the campaigns concluded. Our commentators offer beautiful insights into the reasons for Moshe’s strategy, and lessons for us all. 

The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Chaim Ephraim, in his commentary “Degel Machane Ephraim,” points out that through this important move Moshe was ensuring these two-and-a-half tribes would not become isolated from their countrymen. With only a portion of Menashe settling on the eastern side of the Jordan, this plan would ensure that families of Menashe would travel back and forth between the two settlements of Menashe — which would reinforce the deep connection all the tribes of Israel would need to feel for Jewish continuity. 

Jewish isolationism doesn’t work. Our strength and our survival depends on our interconnectivity as a people, even with those members of the tribe that might be on the other side of the river, or the other side of a divide on any number of issues. As we are about to commemorate another Tisha B’Av, a somber reminder of the what is at stake when we do not remain connected to each other as a people, let us resolve to strengthen the ties that bind us, rather than focus on the rivers or issues that divide us. 

Rabbi Yaakov Green is the head of school at Akiba Yavneh Academy and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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