The mishnah in Pirkei Avot 2:4 admonishes us not to set ourselves apart from the community. This can be understood on many levels, including: Don’t see yourself as “above” or “better than” everyone else. Don’t isolate yourself from those around you. Our tradition recognizes that the community is vital for both our national and personal survival.
From the profound to the mundane, we need each other-to borrow a cup of sugar when we run out, to call 911 if we see someone in distress, to come together to celebrate weddings, or to make meals for each other when we are faced with illness or mourning. If we are not connected to a larger community on a daily basis, and if we do not give back when we can, then we may find ourselves alone in our times of need.
In America, the idea of the individual has become overwhelming. But how far do we take this? When can we exercise our individuality and how do we balance communal and individual needs? This tension is highlighted in parshat Matot, which we have the opportunity this leap year to read on its own rather than in conjunction with Masei.
In chapter 32 of Numbers, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a controversial request of Moses. They ask to settle in the land on the east bank of the Jordan, as opposed to crossing the river to dwell in Eretz Yisrael with their brethren. They claim that the land on the eastern bank is better for their livestock, which they have in abundance. Moses initially objects, arguing that it is unjust for the rest of B’nai Yisrael to have to go into battle to fight for the land while they tend to their herds and dodge military service.
Furthermore, he contends that their actions are akin to the sin of the meraglim, the scouts, who tried to discourage us from going into the land, because their actions threaten to demoralize the people at a crucial moment in our history. Ultimately, the two sides come to an agreement: as long as Reuven and Gad agree to cross over and help B’nai Yisrael fight their enemies in order to possess the land, then they can go back and settle where they wish, along with half of the tribe of Menashe.
What are we to learn from this request and the compromise that is reached? And why was half of the tribe of Menashe seemingly tacked on at the end, when there is no explicit evidence in the Torah text that they wanted to remain behind?
There are many theories put forth by the classic commentators on why the two tribes Reuven and Gad wanted to remain behind. Some say they were too focused on material wealth, concerned about their own flocks rather than about the fate of Am Yisrael. It is also not clear whether they had originally intended to offer to cross the land to fight, or if they were simply placating Moses to ultimately get their way.
What is clear, however, is that the ultimate outcome is one that emphasizes communal responsibility and accountability.
Reuven and Gad cannot get out of fighting for their people ““ they must join forces with the other tribes in the name of the greater goal of bringing the Jewish people into the land that God promised to us. They are not allowed to let their personal wishes get in the way of their communal obligation to see this mission through.
Furthermore, even when Moses concedes to them that ultimately they can settle on the east bank, they are not allowed to completely cut themselves off from the rest of the people. We learn in chapter 32 verse 33 that Moses instructed half of the tribe of Menashe to join Reuven and Gad. Some commentators, the Ramban for example, posit that the tribe of Menashe volunteered to join the other two tribes. Another possible explanation for this seemingly abrupt and random addition, however, continues our theme of unity. Moses, under God’s direction, asks Menashe to join so that there would be an everlasting bond between Reuven and Gad and the rest of Am Yisrael, with the two halves of Menashe serving as an unbreakable link in the chain to unify the tribes over both sides of the Jordan. This was a symbolic statement that we were in fact one community, not two. Through the presence of Manashe, Reuven and Gad would always be mindful of their connection to the larger community of tribes, and not get caught up in their own isolated life on the other side of the river.
This theme of communal unity is a fitting theme to begin the Three Weeks, the period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. During this time we mourn not simply the destruction of the physical Temple, but also the unraveling of the fabric of a unified Jewish community. The Temple represents on a spiritual level a unified Jewish people, united in service to God and deeply committed to the precept that every Jew is responsible for one another.
What are we doing today to promote Jewish unity and communal responsibility?
Perhaps this question seems too ideal, utopian, unattainable in today’s day and age of movements, denominations, independent minyanim, and hundreds of heksherim. Yet I firmly believe the lessons we learn from this week’s parsha are even more relevant today, and present to each of us a vital challenge: Are we doing the best we can to connect with and reach out to people in the communities around us, whether they are on our block, in our neighborhood, in school or work, in synagogue, or in other settings we frequent? Do we care enough about the larger community around us beyond our own insular ones?
Many are familiar with the Talmudic teaching that the Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, gratuitous or baseless hatred. Indifference to others can be a dangerous precursor to strife. That’s why Reuven and Gad had to fight with the rest of us, and that’s why half of Menashe joined them in their new home – to insure that they never forgot whom they were part of, whom they had to fight for, and why. As we study Matot this year during this reflective period of the Three weeks, may we be inspired to reflect upon and strengthen our own communal connections.