Thursday, 08 Jul 2010

Written by Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith

Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei

The sidrah known as Matot (Num. 30:2–36:13) follows very dramatic episodes concerning the apparent grace and goodness of the Children of Israel (Balaam’s praises) as well as their depravity (idolatry at Baal-peor). Like the apostasy of the golden calf which occurred immediately after the revelations at Sinai, future promise was imperilled for the diversions of the moment. In both cases, the guilty are killed by God and then the Israelites continue their protracted journey towards the Promised Land.

There is both narrative and law in Matot and, despite recent setbacks, the emphasis remains on the imminent occupation of the Land of Israel. The sidrah, in its legal and administrative approach to dealing with the subject of impending arrival and settlement, may be included structurally with the preceding sidrah, Pinchas, where relevant tasks subjects are discussed: military census, inheritance rights (especially with respect to women), selecting Joshua as a new leader to replace Moses, and a calendar for religious observance in the new land.

In Matot, there are laws concerning the making of vows, with four cases concerning women and when male authority prevails. Also, in relation to property and stability, there are rules concerning the distribution of booty as well as the ritual decontamination of warriors and captives after the Israelites achieve a military punishment against the Midianites for their role in leading them astray at Baal-peor.

After all of this legal material and the elimination of the immediate military and cultic threats, the task of actual settlement begins. In chapter 32, two tribes differentiate themselves by making a seemingly audacious request: Gad and Reuben seek land on the east side of the Jordan River rather than what was designated as their inheritance west of the Jordan. An exhausted and exasperated Moses – possibly sensing another large- scale crisis and more rancorous infighting – initially rejects this petition angrily.  

For the ensuing negotiation, there is a literary structure formed out of the repetition of the stages and vocabulary. Five key terms are each repeated seven times over the course of the chapter and, as Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom concludes, the essence of the end result is summarized: ‘If Gad and Reuben cross [the Jordan River] as the vanguard before the Lord [marching in front of the ark] they will receive the land holdings [they desire]’ (cf. Num. 32:20–22).

Gad and Reuben offer economic arguments for their request. They are wealthy cattle and sheep herders and, having seen the lush parts of Transjordan,  they want to settle there and press on with building facilities for their herds and flocks as well as places for their families to dwell. This is pragmatism along the lines of, ‘we have seen what we need to get on with our lives, so let us now get to work and build a secure future for ourselves’. But is this ‘pragmatism’ merely self-interest? Is it in contravention of God’s promise to settle and provide for all of the tribes within the borders of Israel?

Moses certainly doubts their motivations and initially accuses them of selfishness and disloyalty to the other Israelite tribes. Furthermore, their request echoes a lack of faith in God’s promise just like their predecessors amongst the spies who expressed great reluctance and fear when it came to invading the Promised Land. Rashi cites a Midrash supporting this harshly negative view of Gad and Reuben. Here, they are viewed as interested only in wealth; because they mentioned sheep folds first before building cities for their human dependents, they express faith only in themselves and interest only in generating wealth, here and now.

The Gaddites and Reubenites don’t back down, however. They offer to supply troops to march in the vanguard and promise that these soldiers will not return home until the entire invasion of Israel has been successfully completed.  Moreover, no lands will be claimed by the two tribes within Israel proper (Num. 32:17–19). These clarifications work and negotiations are concluded successfully. Gad and Reuben get their lands and Moses gets the elite troops that he needs.

The question of balancing one’s own self-perceived needs or well-being versus joining a larger cause is a timeless issue. On the one hand, there is the self-recognition of core competency and strength. On the other hand, how much of one’s ‘safe-space’ should be sacrificed for a collective vision or ethical and spiritual values?

One relatively recent historical example that comes to my mind is that of Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar, Germany who, starting in 1933, rescued many persecuted people – Jews, half-Jews and non-Jews – during the Shoah. As a wealthy industrialist, he engaged in a tug of war with the Nazis to retain control of his optical firm. Under duress, he joined the Nazi party in 1942, when he was 71 years old. One year later, he bribed the Gestapo to save the life of his daughter, who was imprisoned for her role in the attempted escape of a Jewish woman to Switzerland. This paternalistic industrialist was minded to take considerable risks on behalf of saving the acutely vulnerable but, at the same time, he felt a duty to look after all of his workforce and their families. If he had lost or given up the power base of his company, he would not have been of any help to anyone. Resisting evil or involvement in a righteous cause takes many possible forms and may necessitate walking a tightrope between competing and painfully complex demands.


Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith
July 2010

This D’var Torah was previously published in July 2008

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.