Matot-Masei: Diaspora, devotion, and duty

Matot-Masei: Diaspora, devotion, and duty

The Torah is a book about the diaspora. It is, my fellow diaspora Jews, our story.

The Torah opens with the primordial history of the world, and the universal origins of humankind. Of the Patriarchs, Isaac alone spent his whole life in the land of Israel. Abraham, God’s founding covenant partner, was born in the Chaldean city of Ur and visited Egypt. Jacob, eponymic progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel, spent his final years in Egypt. The Revelation at Sinai — arguably the defining theological moment of Jewish history, marking the birth of the Jewish People as a nation with a spiritual mission, occurred in the wilderness — in “no-man’s-land.” The Torah draws to a close in the diaspora. The Israelite tribes are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land; but that is another story! Moses himself — God’s faithful, chosen prophet, lawgiver, and uniquely intimate human interlocutor never enters the land. His entire life and leadership are diaspora events. Israelite time spent in the land of Israel occupies but a miniscule portion of the Torah’s narrative.

Nowhere is the often fraught relationship between the Land of Israel and diaspora Jewry more pointedly explored by the Torah than in Parshat Matot. It is the eve of Israelite entry into the Land. The tribes’ successful conquest is a matter of Divine assurance. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, however, petition Moses to permit them to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, rather than to accompany the rest of the nation in entering the Land of Israel and assuming its rightful role and allotted territory there. Moses’ initial response (Numbers 32:6) is indignant, incredulous: “Are your brothers to go to war, while you just sit here?!” Moses assails them as “a breed of sinners!” (32:14).

While persisting in their desire to settle outside the borders of the Promised Land, the tribes of Gad and Reuben respond by promising to occupy the forefront of the Israelite military effort, serving as shock-troops in the vanguard of the attack. While living (just outside) the borders of the Land of Israel, these loyal tribes would share in responsibility for the national defense, assuming at least the same level of risk and danger as any other Israelite. With this stipulation, Moses accepts the two tribes’ proposal: settlement on the east bank — outside of Israel proper — is permitted. With that agreement, as my teacher, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, has written (reflecting on the history of the tribe whose name he bears!), Israel became “the only people to have created a diaspora before settling a homeland.”

Indeed, Parshat Matot is often read together with Parshat Masei… as it is this year. Masei records a detailed list of the various stops and encampments along our Israelite forbears’ wilderness trek. Significantly, this listing of Israel’s far-flung habitations is traditionally read from the Torah not with the usual cantillation, but using a celebratory, triumphant melody. Parshat Masei thus lends the heightened sanctity of national memory to any place the Israelite community dwelt even briefly.

The Torah is a Book about the diaspora. It is, my fellow diaspora Jews, our story.

The accord established with Gad and Reuben established the principled bonds that have ever since linked Jews of the diaspora to the Land of Israel, to residents of the Holy Land, and — for the past 71 years — to citizens of the Jewish State. The accord negotiated with Gad and Reuben established the principle that Jewish communities and individual Jews have an inviolable obligation to share in assuring the safety and security, the well-being and survival of the Jewish People as a whole… in meeting whatever threats or challenges may confront the Jewish nation… particularly in its ancestral Land.

Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschitz, the eighteenth century Talmudist, kabbalist, dayan of Prague, rabbi of the “Three Communities” of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek, and author of the commentary Tiferet Yonatan, explains the arrangement effected by Moses with the “diaspora” tribes:

“The plain meaning of the Scriptural text is this: ‘Do not think that when ‘your brothers go to war’ — when their enemies beset Israel — that you will be able to ‘just sit here’ in undisturbed peace in the land of your dispersion. Entertain no such a thought! The war for the defense of Israel is a war for the survival of the entire Jewish People in all the lands of the diaspora.”

The spirit and substance of Moses’ negotiation with Gad and Reuben are revisited in the Book of Esther — like the Torah, very much a Book about the diaspora. When Esther expresses reluctance to intervene with Achashverosh regarding Haman’s genocidal designs against international Jewry (“from the Indian sub-continent to central Africa” — Esther 1:1), Mordecai admonishes her — much as Moses upbraided Gad and Reuben: “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14). Like Gad and Reuben before her, Esther — enjoying personal wealth, privilege, and prosperity in her diaspora home — commits to risk all in defense of the Jewish People.

Tiferet Yonatan (in the mid-1700s) took counsel from both Moses and Mordecai. Jewish communities of the diaspora and Jews building the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel ultimately share one common fate. This article of faith is as old as the Torah itself… as much a part of our national self-image as the miraculous survival documented in the Megillah — our other beloved diaspora epic.

American Jews in particular have a solemn, historic obligation, carefully to contemplate our relationship and responsibilities to the State of Israel — which defends itself daily against attackers, is beset by threats from a genocidal regime situated not far from where Esther made her fateful decision, and finds itself questioned and maligned even by some in our own halls of government. In so doing, we should take to heart the wisdom conveyed by Mordecai’s concluding words to his adopted daughter: U-mi yodeya im la-et ka-zot higa’at la-malchut? “Who knows? Perhaps it is for just such a purpose, for precisely such a moment that you were fated to attain to royal stature,” that you — that we — came to occupy a position and to inhabit a land in which we can make a difference.

The Torah is a Book about the diaspora. It is, my fellow diaspora Jews, our story. In or out of uniform, the fight to defend the State of Israel is the fight for the survival of the entire Jewish People in all the lands of the diaspora.

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