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Mekor Chaim

July 17, 2011

Parshat Matote
Rabbi Steven Garten
Temple Israel, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Rabbis in the Jewish community universally have uttered the following lament:  If only more of our community read Torah!  However, this week's parsha,  Parasha Matot, seems to call out to us quite clearly, READ ME!

In our parsha, the book of Numbers is winding down and as it does so, it  presents us with a number of texts about war. Indeed, it is a war with Midian that sets the Biblical context for rules of war and the rules for dividing the spoils of war and purifying warriors. Amongst the myriad of other laws in this parsha, there is also a request by the tribes of Reuven and Gad to remain on the land east of the Jordan River. It is this request that seems to provide us with an interesting insight to questions of leadership and the right of an individual to make different choices.

The Reuvinaties and Gadites, who own great numbers of cattle, approach Moses with the request to settle the lands of Jazer and Gilead on the east side of the Jordan River. They claim that these lands are better suited for cattle than the lands allotted to them inside the borders of Israel. While these lands have been conquered by the Israelites, they have not been designated as part of the tribal inheritance. Moses responds to their request with a sharp rebuke. Moses pointedly asks the Gadites and Reuvenites:”Are your brothers to go to war for you while you stay here?”. He compares this generation with a previous one, condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness,”And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers.”

Though Moses and the “rebellious tribes “ reach an accommodation, many of the rabbinic commentators see the request as greed and link them to Korach, Goliath and Bala’am, who each acted unscrupulously to accumulate wealth only to lose it. Rashi notes: “they were more worried about their money than they were about their sons and daughters since they their cattle first.” Numbers Rabbah offers a similar approach. Even Josephus Falvius agrees with the harsh rabbinic assessment of the Gadites and the Reuvenites. Josphus labels them “arrogant cowards” because they had a mind to live in luxury and ease while the rest were laboring with great pains to obtain land they were desirous to have.”

However there are dissenting voices and they have much to say to those who love Israel while offering alternative visions to the main stream perspectives. It is  Nachmonides, in his commentary to Torah, who sympathizes with Moses, but maintains that the true intentions of the tribes are misunderstood. Moses does not listen to the intention only the words. He rushes to judgment and therefore condemns too quickly. Nachmonides argument revolves around his perception that the tribes made a request not initiated a confrontation. “They were seeking what they believed to be best for all Israelites, not just themselves.” Abravenel agrees with Nachmonides as does Isaac Arama.

This argument, and the varieties of interpretations associated with it, resonate with all who follow the current dialogue about the "right path" for lovers of Israel, (“Ohavei Tzion”) to demonstrate their commitment to Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, in our own time, all too often there is a rush to judgment when someone, or some organization, offers an alternative approach or opinion about the” best” way to protect and preserve the homeland of the Jewish people. In Biblical times,  Moses rushed to judgment and accused the tribes of placing personal aggrandizement ahead of peoplehood and he rushed to accuse the tribes of denying the centrality of Amcha.  But upon a closer examination of the rabbinic sources, we see that our tradition has preserved the varieties of rabbinic responses to this episode as testimony to the value of Talmud Torah. We accept that different rabbinic opinions are offered L’Shem Shamyim.  Therefore, how much the more so in our day and age, should we learn that a rush to criticize and isolate alternative opinions and perceptions is not in keeping with our rabbinic tradition of accepting  and tolerating many voices that interpret that which is the "best path" for the people of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom


The Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet

Cabinet Chair: Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Vice Chair: Rabbi Rabbi Les Bronstein
Vice Chair: Rabbi Fred Klein 
Vice Chair: Rabbi Larry Kotok                                                                                               Vice Chair: Rabbi Steve Lindeman
President: Rabbi Steven E. Foster
Honorary Chair: Rabbi Matthew H. Simon
Director of the Rabbinic Cabinet: Rabbi Gerald Weider


The opinions expressed in Mekor Chaim articles are solely of the author
and do not reflect any official position of Jewish Federations of North America or the Rabbinic Cabinet.

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