Parashat Matot-Mas’ei – Moving and Settling

Parashat Matot-Mas’ei – Moving and Settling

Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Tenafly, Reform


My family and I moved this week. We moved from a house we were renting in Demarest to another that we bought about a mile away.* While packing boxes a few days ago, my wife looked up and remarked, “I feel like this is déjà vu.” Last summer when I began serving Temple Sinai of Bergen County we moved to Demarest from Worcester, Mass. So, this was our second move in a year. Moreover, though we have been fortunate to serve in only three congregations in our careers, this was our ninth move in our 21 years together. To quote the great sage Yogi Berra, that’s “déjà vu all over again.”

Even so, this doesn’t begin to compare to our ancestors, whose many moves during their 40 years in the wilderness are recounted in this week’s double portion, Matot-Mas’ei: “The Israelites set out from Ramses and encamped at Succot. They set out from Succot and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahirot…” (Numb. 33:5-7) These are merely the first four of 42 moves by our people during 40 years in the wilderness. That’s a lot of boxes! And while my family’s overwhelmingly positive experiences in the New York, Massachusetts, and Chicago areas bear no resemblance to that of our ancestors in the desert, if our experience of relocation is any indicator of what the Israelites felt, it’s safe to say that when they reached the edge of the Promised Land they were more than ready to settle down.

From that perspective, it’s hard to blame the members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad for asking Moses, Elazar the priest, and the other leaders, as they do in this week’s portion, to be allowed to settle on the east side of the Jordan River. The Israelites had just conquered a large swath of territory in the biblical area of Yazer and Gilad, which the Reubenites and Gadites noted was good grazing land and they had a lot of cattle. “It would be a favor to us,” they asked, “if this land were given to your servants [i.e. us] as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan” (Numb. 32:5). It seems like a reasonable enough request. After years of wandering they had found a place that was economically viable for them and suited their needs. Instead of having to move on to the next place, they wanted to settle down. In many ways the desire of the Reubenites and Gadites is no different from what most of us desire: a nice, safe place to live, close to where we work, and where our families and we can thrive. It is precisely why my wife and I have chosen to settle our family in Demarest.

It is apparent, however, from the first line of Moses’ response to the Reubenites and Gadites that he does not see their request as reasonable at all: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” Ouch. It is the most natural thing in the world to seek out a nice place to live, a place where we can settle down, where our families and we can prosper and grow. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just as easy to forget, though, that there are others out there who don’t yet have what we have – our “brothers” to whom we owe our concern and assistance. It not acceptable, the Torah teaches us, to grab our own piece of the pie and let our brothers fend for themselves. Rather, we must fight with them until they have their fair share of the pie as well. This is true for our brothers who are fellow MOTs (Members of the Tribe, i.e. Jews), as our Torah portion implies, and for our brothers of other “tribes” who live in our communities. As Ben Azzai argued in the Talmud Yerushalmi, the most important verse in the Torah is “This is the line of Adam” (Gen. 5:1) because from it we understand that we are all descended from one person. We are all brothers. In our Torah portion the Reubenites and Gadites hear Moses’ message. They respond that after settling their sheep and families on the east side of the Jordan, “we will hasten as shock troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home….” (Numb. 32:17)

Moses raises a second concern in his response to the Reubenites and Gadites. He says, “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Eternal has given them?” (Numb. 32:6-7) Moses realizes that something critical is missing from the outlook of the Gadites and Reubenites. The Israelites were not freed from Egypt merely to find a decent place to live and prosper. God had a goal in mind for them. Their mission was to settle in the Promised Land, the land of their ancestors, and to live in covenant with God. The prior generation in the wilderness had failed to go up to the land when they had the opportunity, i.e. when spies were sent to scout the land (Numb. 13 & 14). If the Reubenites and Gadites stay on the east side of the Jordan, outside of the land of Israel, they would be showing their hesitancy to enter and fight for the land, opening the door for the rest of the people to do the same. Just as happened 38 years before, the Reubenites and Gadites could cause the entire mission to fail. That is why, even when they agree to fight with their brothers for the Land of Israel, Moses hammers home that they were going to do so “at the instance of the Eternal,” a phrase, as Nehama Leibowitz points out, that is repeated four times in three verses (32:20-22). 1

Having a decent place to settle is important. No one wants to keep moving, but our goal must be more than material comfort, more than a nice safe place to live. We are a covenant people with a sacred mission. It took our ancestors 42 moves, 42 stages, to reach the Promised Land. Our rabbis of old saw these not merely as physical moves, but spiritual stages, without which the people would not have been ready to enter the promised land. The great founder of chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that what happened to our ancestors in the wilderness is a sign for each of us in our own lives. Each of us needs to experience 42 spiritual stages in our own life journeys if we are to reach our spiritual promise. 2 Better start packing some boxes.

* Consequently, Demarest, while having no synagogue, can still lay claim to being the only New Jersey town with five rabbis, four of whom were once residents of Worcester, Mass., and its environs: My wife, Rabbi Paula Feldstein, and I, who lived in Worcester for nine years before coming to New Jersey a year ago; Rabbi Debra Hachen, who lived in Westboro, a suburb of Worcester, before moving to Demarest to serve Temple Beth El of Closter; and Rabbi Dennis Shulman, who ran for Congress last fall, but grew up in Worcester. The fifth rabbi, who has no known Worcester connections, is Suri Krieger.

1 Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, pp. 382-383.

2 Itturei Torah, Krach Chamishi, Sefer Bamidbar, p. 201.