On The Far Side Of The River


This week’s double portion records how the Jews finally cross the Jordan River on their way to conquer the Promised Land. The tribes of Gad, Reuven and half the tribe of Menashe possess a great multitude of cattle, and “paradise” for cattle is good grazing land, which happens to be what these two-and-a-half tribes found in their present location of Trans-Jordan. So they petition Moses with a special request: “If you would grant us a favor, let this land be given to us as our permanent property, and do not bring us across the Jordan” [Numbers 32:5].

Moses’ response is sharp: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here? Why are you trying to discourage the Israelites from crossing over to the land that God has given them? This is the same thing your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land” [Num. 32:6-8]. Moses’ reference is an especially damning one: just as the scouts decided to remain in the desert because they lacked the courage and will to fight for the Promised Land, you are acting similar to them by wanting to stay where you are, saving yourselves from the war. Moses makes this comparison even though Trans-Jordan is considered to be part of the Holy Land [Mishnah Kelim 1, 10].

What moved these tribes to remain in Trans-Jordan? According to Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm, they petitioned not to have to cross the Jordan because of their cattle, which expresses a certain degree of material greed on their part; it doesn’t take a great flight of the imagination to see the comparison between that and economic opportunities today. Why do Jews continue to live outside of Israel? Because they’ve found “good grazing lands?” And if these modern tribes wanting to remain outside the Land question a contemporary rabbinic authority about their choice, the rabbinic authority would more than likely repeat Moses’ message: “Why should your brothers fight while you stay here?” [Num. 32:61].

After all, world Jewry has certainly benefited from the State of Israel. After the Holocaust, which resulted in the loss of one-third of our people and four-fifths of our religious, intellectual and cultural leadership, it seemed as if Judaism had finally departed from the stage. Alfred Toynbee called the Jews a “fossil” in the history he published in 1946. Rome’s chief rabbi converted to Christianity and conversion and assimilation were rampant. Not only did world Jewry experience a miraculous renaissance after the declaration of Israeli statehood, and again with the liberation of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, but Israel is now the greatest provider of religious and educational leadership for Jewish communities throughout the world, as well as the most effective inspiration through programs like Birthright. Every successful diaspora Jewish community owes its development in no small measure to the Jewish State.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, author of “Akedat Yitzchak,” gives a slightly different interpretation. He describes the tribes of Gad and Reuven as practical materialists who nevertheless are planning to eventually join their siblings in Israel’s heartland. But eventually, not right now.

The Ohr Hachayim approaches the situation in its simplest, most “religious” terms, suggesting that the two-and-a-half tribes built their argument around Divine intervention. The land they are already in is land that God conquered for us and therefore this is the land we wish to remain in [Num. 32:41]. If God wants us somewhere else, let Him conquer that land too. Until then, this is where we’re going to stay and this is where our cattle will stay. It is good for our cattle and therefore it is good for us.

In many ways, the Ohr Hachayim’s reading sees these tribes as being the counterparts of Neturei Karta, waiting for God Himself — or at least his Messiah — to bring us to Israel.

The truth is that Gad and Reuven had forgotten their history. They cannot wait for God, or rest on their grazing laurels while the rest of the nation fights their wars for them. When the Israelites reached the Sea of Reeds (also known as the Red Sea) chased by the Egyptian army they asked Moses to pray to God. “Why are you crying out to me?” God says to Moses. “Speak to the Israelites and let them start moving” [Exodus 14:15]. The sea does not split until Nachshon ben-Aminadav and Calev ben-Yefuna jump in.

Similarly, when Moses tells Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe that they have to bear arms, he’s really pointing out that God’s promise to Israel is that everyone has to be partners: God with the nation, and the nation with each other, sharing in mutual responsibility. At the end of the day, if our fledgling State proves to be even more vulnerable than we think by dint of less man-power in war and a smaller population than is required, Jews will have only themselves to blame for not rising to the challenge offered by the greatest Jewish adventure in 2000 years.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 8:08 p.m.
Torah: Num. 30:1-36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2
Havdalah: 9:08 p.m.