In this week’s parasha, Matot, God describes and proscribes what a holy war should look like. The enemy is the Midianite tribe (yes, it’s interesting that Moses’ wife is a Midianite and he took lots of advice from his Midianite Priest father-in-law, but that piece of marriage counseling will have to wait) and God gets pretty specific in the instructions. Gather people. Arm them, including the “sacred utensils and trumpets for sounding the blast.” Kill all, except for virgins, level the towns, take the booty, purify whatever you think has been contaminated, divide the booty, bring the gold and other good stuff to the Priests. That’s uncomfortable to read, indeed. But moving on….
Next, we read that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who were big cattle breeders, noted that some of the best cattle country was in land east of the Jordan. So they asked Moses if it would be ok if they stayed there, “It would be a favor to us”, they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:5)
Moses was not pleased. His first response was that these two tribes were wimping out just as they were needed, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Num 32:6) So they worked out a deal. The Gadites and Reubenites would settle and build east of the Jordan, but they would leave their wives and families behind and go fight with the rest of the people to conquer the Land. If they did that, and didn’t just slink off away from the battle, they could have their chosen land instead of the Chosen Land. However, if they did not “cross over as shock-troops, [they] shall receive holdings among [them] in the land of Canaan.” (Num 32:30) Interesting. Required to have land in Canaan as a punishment? For another conversation.
Several questions arise here, one of which is, “Did Moses fail in his mission because some people decided they didn’t want to come into the Land? Is this the first model for Diaspora Jews, those of us who choose to live outside Israel? We, who have chosen to build “sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” in other parts of the world, what are our responsibilities to those decided to head on in to where Moses showed them?
According to this part of the text, it is military support. We get to live where we want, but we have to show up to when we’re needed. I think this has largely been the relationship between Jews living inside Israel and those living outside Israel. We give money, we hold rallies, we visit, we state our heart-felt support and love, and continue to live where we feel it’s best for our families and livelihood. It must have hurt Moses terribly to think that, after all this time, there were people who just didn’t want to follow into the Land where he, himself, wasn’t able to go. But that’s what happens when you free a people from slavery, give them a set of guidelines and rules with which to build a functioning society, and bring them to the edge of their new lives. Some choose to take those guidelines to heart, but just in a different place. We’ll stay here, thank you, you guys go on ahead, we’ll visit you for the holidays.
It is a complicated relationship, to be sure. I will not be moving to Israel; I never wanted to. From the time I was in high school, and in a Zionist youth group that laid a lot of weight (and guilt!) about making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel), I realized that there was a community to educate in this country, people for whom moving to Israel wasn’t going to be their choice, but for whom developing a meaningful Jewish identity was crucial. Right now, in fact, my relationship with Israel, the State, is more complicated than usual. It’s breaking my heart. The Gadites and Reubenites supported their people in war. I must support them in searching for peace.