In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Matot, the children of Israel are mere steps away from the promised land. From where they have stopped on the mountain of Gilad, on the eastern side of the River Jordan, they can see most of the land of Israel. The new generation that is looking out over the land was born into a nomadic reality, filled with struggles against the forces of nature and the peoples surrounding them. Stories of enslavement in Egypt a matter of history, belonging to past generations.
At this point, a division emerges within the children of Israel. The tribes of Gad and Reuben, who are cattle herders, wish to remain on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, because the land there is quite suitable for cattle herding. Meanwhile, the remaining ten tribes still look toward the settlement of the Land of Israel, the national dream and a daunting task that has yet to be fulfilled.
“The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle,the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said . . . the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle.” (Numbers 32: 1-4)
Moses, still very much the leader of the People, was fearful of what he saw as history repeating itself. How could the dream be laid aside, moments before its realization, because of a lack of faith and solidarity?
“Moses replied to the Gadites and the Reubenites, ‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the LORD has given them?'” (Numbers 32: 6-7)
Moses’s words resonate. The tribal representatives of Gad and Reuben understand that their desire for their tribes’ well-being could disrupt the delicate fabric uniting the children of Israel and crush their collective efforts. And so, they change their attitude and offer to Moses and the future leadership (Joshua and Elazar) an updated proposal.
“Then they stepped up to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.'” (Numbers 32: 16-18)
In the updated proposal, the tribes that have established their homes on the east bank will not lag behind their fellow Israelites, but will instead act as the spearhead whose mission will not be finished until all of the tribes are established in their new land. The traditional Torah commentators went a step further and claimed that the process of establishment took 14 years (seven years of conquest and seven more of distribution). The expansion of the period of time in which the tribes of Reuben and Gad aided their brethren was not by chance, and was intended to convey a message to the following generations. The more established groups in society have a social role that goes beyond personal and familial welfare – they need to see the broader picture and provide support for those groups for which attaining financial and social stability may take a bit longer.
The struggle between those interested in the personal or sectoral good, and those concerned with the general good, is not new. This struggle continues with us from the biblical period through the days of Israel’s founding. Each generation had its own challenges, but even with historical differences, society’s need for individuals and groups to pitch in and help to move it forward is the same as it ever was. During the first Knesset term, in a discussion on mandatory military service, David Ben-Gurion made the following statement:
“No person becomes a pioneer because the law tells him to. The pioneering spirit comes from within. It is a spirit that beats within the heart of a person, it is cultivated by personal example, by idealism, and does not fit a particular mold. But we must know that the State of Israel will not carry out its historic mission without extended popular will, and without the pioneering drive of our young people. Without spirit and without pioneering strength we will never absorb new immigrants, we will never build up the country, we will never create a unified nation and culture, that is capable of creation and struggle.’Without vision, a people withers.’ Many of our challenges, perhaps all of them, derive from a lack of pioneering effort . . . the ability of the state to increase our pioneering capability and will is limited. Because one does not simply cast a pioneering spirit. But the state is not exempt from creating mandatory frameworks to help increase the pioneering spirit among our young people” (David Ben Gurion, Knesset Record, January 16, 1950).
Just like today, we cannot rely merely on legislated coercion and formal authority, nor on punishments meted out by fellow people or the heavens. In order to establish a society whose inhabitants share its burdens – be they the burdens of service in the IDF or participation in the taxpaying workforce – those inhabitants must carry an inner motivation, a personal and collective devotion. That devotion depends on a sense of solidarity and on the recognition of the need to think beyond the narrow needs of individuals. The message relayed in this portion does not fade away on the mountains of Gilad, but remains with us throughout the generations, and continues to be relevant in the coming Israeli elections. In these elections, a struggle is once again being waged between the personal or sectoral good, and between the general good. It is our responsibility to bring the values and stories which we learn from our ancestors from the realm of ideas to the realm of action, so that we can make change a reality in our day and age.
Avraham Eisen is the Director of BINA’s Education Department.