This week’s parasha is a double one: Matot-Masei. We’re at the end of Bamidbar, coming to the end of our journey towards the Land. It’s been a long haul – 40 years, in fact. In that time, and entire generation has died out and a new one has been born. The old generation had a direct experience with slavery and Sinai, and of course, Moses as a younger man. This new generation is removed from all three. Where does this population get their connection to this goal…the Land long promised.. of their parents’ generation? What will that relationship be?
Recently, the Forward’s Jane Eisner wrote an article about a new way of looking at those of us Jews in the Diaspora; indeed, she advocates taking the word itself out of our vocabulary altogether. It’s an old way of looking at our relationship to Israel, and a new one needs to be defined. The American Jewish community is home, not going anywhere, and forms one half of the entire world Jewish population.
We find a model for this relationship in this week’s parasha. In Chapter 32 of Numbers we read, “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers…the land that Adonai has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country…’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: 32:1-5) They were not looking at land inside Canaan; to the contrary, they were on the east side of the Jordan, and wanted to stay there. It wasn’t in the original inheritance, in fact, but it was a good place to settle down. Moses asked if it was fair that their brothers go into the land and fight to settle there, while they stayed behind, so the Reubenites and Gadites agreed to help the other tribes in that endeavor, and then return to their land on the east side of the Jordan.
As Eisner says, “I do not suggest that the two parties should divorce, or even amicably separate and go their own ways. After seven decades, Israel has become an essential element of modern Jewish life far beyond Tel Aviv, in Toronto and Tucson and Tashkent; those of us who live outside The Land benefit enormously from its political, social, intellectual, economic and cultural achievements, from its spiritual centering, from its very being there. We turn away from it at our peril, and our detriment.
But seven decades on, the language of Israel and Diaspora, of center and periphery, hub and spoke, homeland and exile, no longer describes the lived reality of the majority of the world’s Jews who continue to reside and thrive outside Israel’s contested borders.”
Half the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, and half here in the United States. We form two strong pillars of the community, upon both of which the community depends. There is a lot to be said for living outside the Land. In fact, if you look at the major developments in Jewish thought, practice, commentary, etc you will find that they happened outside Israel, not inside. Think of Rashi, Maimonides, and Ibn Ezra. Think of the great centers of Jewish learning in Europe and Spain. Remember that it’s the Babylonian Talmud we follow in general, not the Jerusalem Talmud. Judaism flourished and grew and adapted and developed when we lived among others – that’s where the creativity was needed, so that we became (and still are) a living, vital community, instead of an ancient sect that died out.
It’s time we stopped thinking that we aren’t “good enough” just because we don’t live in Israel. It’s time Israelis learned more about what it takes to live a Jewish life by choice, and not by state. It’s time to stop thinking those of us outside Israel are “less than”. It’s not easy to re-define a relationship, especially one so long-held and heralded. But we must do that if that relationship between our two communities is to remain strong and mutually beneficial, and read to not only withstand challenges, but flourish and develop.