On the Other Side of the Jordan

Matot - Mas'ei, Numbers 30:2–36:13

D'Var Torah By: Beth Ellen Young

One of the commonalities among Jews all over the world is the Torah reading cycle. We all start with Parashat B'reishit on Simchat Torah and proceed through the Torah portions and the Hebrew calendar. But, because some holidays are observed for different lengths of time inside Israel and outside Israel, occasionally there is a hiccup in this system and the portions we read in Israel and outside of Israel are different. This year we had this occurrence, and so in Israel, Matot and Masei are read as two separate portions, while outside of Israel (in what's called the "Diaspora") they are read as a double portion.

In both portions, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land. We read in Parashat Matot of the Israelites defeating the Midianites, and in Parashat Masei, the Israelites' movement since the Exodus are recounted. It seems that we are approaching the climactic scene where the Israelites enter the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendants.

However, there is a problem for the tribes of Reuben and of Gad. Seeing the land that has been taken from Midian, they are quick to realize that this land is good for raising cattle - and these two tribes, we are told, have "cattle in very great numbers." (Numbers 32:1) The leaders of the tribes approach Moses and request to have this land as their inheritance and not cross over to the other side of the Jordan.

Moses is not at all happy about this and rants at them for 10 verses! Moses' first objection is that these tribes would stay behind while the rest went to war. He then escalates his objections saying this will undermine the Israelites' confidence and will be a repeat of what happened when the spies scouted the Promised Land, but worse. He concludes his tirade, "If you turn away from [God], who then abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people." (Numbers 32:15)

It seems that Moses misunderstood the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. They are not looking to get out of the conquest. They will build homes for their children on this side of the Jordan but will lead the charge into the Promised Land and not return home until "the Israelites - every one of them - are in possession of their portion." (Numbers 32:18)

Moses accepts this proposal and assigns the tribes of Reuben and Gad land on the "other" side of the Jordan. He does emphasize that if they don't follow through on this commitment to settle the land, they will have sinned against God and this sin will overtake them. The Reubenites and Gadites agree, Moses lets Joshua and Elazar know of these arrangements, and the two tribes (plus the half tribe of Manasseh) rebuild the cities and fortify them.

As an American Jew who is currently traveling in Israel, this story touched a deep and personal chord for me. I identify with the Reubenites and the Gadites. My decision to live in America and serve the Jewish people there places me on the "other" side of the Jordan. I am not Israeli - yet I am deeply connected to the Israeli people and the land. I feel that my fate is intertwined with theirs, yet it is distinct in the same way that these two and a half tribes requested to live in a different land but still were committed to the success of the conquest.

Sometimes, in my head, I hear the angry voice of Moses questioning how I can be committed to the Jewish future if I am not living in Israel and working towards its survival. But more often, I hear the understanding voice of Moses, who acknowledges that serving the Jewish community outside of Israel does not sever my ties with the Land and State of Israel.

As we conclude the book of Numbers, we also re-sync the Israeli and the Diaspora Torah reading cycle. As we move forward into the book of Deuteronomy, Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, on both sides of the Jordan, move forward together. Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik - be strong, be strong, and we will all be strengthened.

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