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Matot-Masei: All Hands on Deck

July 9, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on Matot-Masei and our upcoming move.

My paternal grandmother, of blessed memory, was not a big fan of rabbis.

While I like to think she was secretly pleased that the rabbi in our family was a woman, she did try several times to talk me out of my chosen profession (including when I was staying at her house between rabbinical school interviews). Like many of an older generation, she didn’t think it was the right kind of job for nice Jewish girl who wanted to raise a family. But she also had some gripes about the profession that were purely her own. She thought that religion was a “dirty business.”

This didn’t mean she wasn’t interested in Judaism. Over the course of her life, she taught Hebrew School, graduated from the Melton Adult Learning Program, and even took a Talmud class, which she dropped out of because it “went too slow.”

My grandmother belonged to a synagogue in Westchester for most of her adult life, and even served on their board. But as she got older, she stopped going to services. In fact, one Shabbat when I made her take me to her temple, people greeted her with such enthusiasm that I later realized that it had been so long since she’d attended that they thought she had moved.

My grandmother’s relationship to the organized Jewish community was, shall we say, complicated. So imagine our surprise when my aunt took over my grandmother’s finances and discovered that, years after she had stopped going to synagogue, my grandmother was still paying her dues.

“Why are do you still pay your dues, Grandma?” I asked. “You haven’t set foot in the synagogue in years!”

“Well, I still need to support the community, don’t I?”

I was thinking about this as I read this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, in which the Israelites are inching ever so much closer to the Promised Land. They are so close, in fact, that they are starting to make battle plans for conquering the land. The question of supporting the community here is a life-or-death matter.

But not everyone is excited about the new location. Two of the twelve tribes, the Reubenites and Gadites, have decided that they would prefer to settle on the other side of the Jordan. They ask of Moses: “the land that the Eternal has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us … if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:4-5).

Moses is not happy about this request. He worries that their decision will anger God and bring calamity on the Israelites, like the bad report from the 12 spies did nearly 40 years earlier. He is concerned that seeing Reuben and Gad stay behind, will discourage the other ten tribes from crossing the Jordan themselves (Numbers 32:7-15). But most of all, he is angry that these two tribes would abandon their community in their hour of need. He asks them, pointedly, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32: 6).

This is an “all-hands-on-deck” moment for the Israelites. Even if they want no portion of the Promised Land, the Reubenites and the Gadites cannot excuse themselves from the battle. They are responsible for their fellow Israelites, and responsible for what happens next.

Alan Morinis offers a teaching on the Hebrew word for responsibility, acharayut. “Some say the root of acharayut is achar, which means ‘after.’ Others say it is acher, meaning ‘other’ (Everyday Holiness, p. 198).

According to Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, this episode at the border of the Promised Land is a lesson in both understandings of acharayut. “The former suggest that we should always be mindful of the aftereffects, or consequences, of our actions. The latter highlights the ways the needs of others should be part of the calculus when we make choices” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 263).

Moses is asking Reuben and Gad to take responsibility in both senses: he wants them to think about their fellow Israelites who are about to go into battle, the “other,” and he wants them to think about the future inheritance that the Israelites were promised, the “after.”

Chastened, the leaders of Reuben and Gad propose a compromise: “ ‘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. But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan‘” (Numbers 32:16-19).

Rabbi Gurevitz writes that, “As soon as Moses makes the Gadites and Reubenites aware that they have a greater responsibility to the Children of Israel, they appear to step up and embrace that responsibility without hesitation” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 262).

However, in Midrash Tanhuma, the rabbis suggest that Moses’ response to the Reubenites and Gadites is actually a subtle dig at their misaligned priorities. While the tribal leaders say they will come fight after they build sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children, Moses reverses the order, saying “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised” (Numbers 32: 24) as if to say, “Do not do like this, make the essential first” (Midrash Tanhuma 7).

We are in a transitional moment in the life of our congregation (aren’t we always, it seems?). We are hopefully crossing the border into the “new normal” post-COVID. We are about to inhabit a new “Promised Land” with our neighbors at Beth Sholom. And we are changing the way we approach membership support, moving away from the traditional “dues” model and towards a sustaining pledge model.

All of these are necessary adaptations to ensure our survival and our sustainability in an ever-changing world. And the success of all of these initiatives will rely on each an every one of us taking responsibility for the community as a whole, not only for our own patch of it.

We are responsible for making our new space open, welcoming, and accessible to all, even with those whose needs are different than our own. We are responsible for providing meaningful worship experiences, both in person and online, even those of us who prefer one to the other (or who, like my grandmother, only attended under duress). We are responsible for providing an education for the children of our community, even if we don’t have children in the program right now. We are responsible for making the essential first.

It would have been easy for the Reubenites and Gadites to say, “We don’t even WANT to go to the Promised Land. Why should we risk our lives and livelihoods for something we’re not even going to use?” Instead, they agreed to support the Israelites in fulfilling their mission, so that everyone can have the future that they were promised.

This is an “all hands on deck” moment.

We are responsible for making sure there is a Kol Ami community here for the acher, the “other,” those who are not in our family, our social circle, or our financial situation. And we are responsible for making sure there is a Kol Ami community here for the achar, the “after,” the generations that come after us.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz