Much like Moses we should prioritize Jewish unity over zealotry - opinion

Today, just as throughout all of Jewish history, our strength can only come from our shared differences, not in spite of them.

 Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments (illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments (illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There has been much talk recently about the impending danger of a schism between Jews living in the Diaspora and Israel.

Some Diaspora Jews, in protest over what they see as undemocratic, racist, or otherwise offensive policies, have threatened to sever their ties with Israel. Some perceive the government of Israel as rebuffing the concerns of liberal movements. Some Israeli Jews have dubbed those who are especially critical of Israel: “un-Jews.”

I certainly think it is necessary to take all of these concerns seriously. However, I also think it is useful to remember that these tensions actually reflect a perennial struggle going back to biblical days.  Thus, we can tone down the doomsday scenarios and, at the same time, gain important insights about how to productively navigate these challenges.

This coming week’s portions, Matot-Masei, tell the tale of the tribes of Reuven and Gad (and later half of Menashe) who find themselves very comfortable materially on the eastern side of the Jordan and are uninterested in settling the land of Israel (Numbers 32:1). Moses’ response to their suggestion of staying put – even after they raise the subject diplomatically – is swift and severe; he launches into a 10-verse tirade comparing Reuven and Gad to the spies (Numbers 32:7-13) and telling them that they are “a breed of sinful fellows’’ (32:14). Yet as harsh as these words seem, these binary lines of right and wrong have a context. Moses and the generation that left Egypt still bear the emotional scars and tragic consequences of the spies’ unfavorable report 40 years earlier. Moses, it would seem, is so caught up in the failures of the past that he is unable to engage compassionately with the present.

Remarkably, because they understand Moses’ trauma, yet have the distance of having come of age after the tragedy, Reuven and Gad don’t allow themselves to get pulled into a shouting match. Rather than respond defensively to Moses’ invective, they “approach” Moses (32:16).

A RECENT view of the Jordan Valley – no longer an area of strategic significance. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
A RECENT view of the Jordan Valley – no longer an area of strategic significance. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Conflict resolution experts (including our traditional sources, see Or HaHaim Lev. 19:17) identify the curious question that Moses asks them, as critical to constructive conversation. Moses asks only one question: “Will your brothers go to war while you sit here?” (32:6). Reuven and Gad leverage that question, whether or not it was curious, to engage in dialogue.

Just as conflict resolution experts predict, once the dialogue begins, Moses is able to approach Reuven and Gad as well. Letting go of the accusing tone, Moses doesn’t retreat from his own deeply held truth. He reflects back to them some of their problematic assumptions, implicitly asking, “Do you really mean to put your cattle before your children? Don’t you want to be part of being “before God” in addition to being “before the children of Israel”? (32:20-24)

Reuven and Gad are able to hear Moses’ arguments and adjust their position accordingly. They reframe their requests. Yes, they do want to put their children first. Yes, they do want to be “before God.”

And Moses learns something, too. He focuses on fears that this situation is reenacting the spy incident and sabotaging the conquest for all the Israelites, yet he loses sight of another looming danger, the loss of some of the tribes of Israel.

Unity over Zealotry

This concern has been a motif throughout the Torah. Its shadow looms over Genesis, in which Ishmael and Esau are rejected. But it is resolved as all 12 of Jacob’s sons are “chosen” in the end. Now, however, at the end of Numbers, Moses’ demand for conformity endangers that unity. Reuven, Gad, and Menashe teach Moses that unity must be preserved and that it is possible to be part of the Israelite nation without entering the land and conforming in every way. Sometimes that is necessary and even advantageous.

Moses acknowledges that they make a legitimate choice to be on the other side of the Jordan and Reuven, Gad, and Menashe are ultimately not condemned by Moses for being traitors. And far from rejecting their people and homeland, they remain active players in the overall conquest of the Land. The triumph of the Book of Numbers, like that of Genesis, is that all 12 Tribes of Israel remain “chosen.”

What the Torah seems to be saying is that even the voices and contributions of the marginalized are absolutely essential. The story ends with disagreement and divergence, with some tribes preferring collectivism and others individualism. And yet, in their divergence, there is also shared destiny, mutual contribution, and respect.

There is a happy ending to the conflict in this week’s Torah portions. But the two sides do not proceed in total equanimity.

While Reuven and Gad call their place on the eastern bank of the Jordan “an inheritance,” Moses refuses to do so (32:32). What Reuven and Gad claim as their “promised land,” (Gen. 15:18-21) Moses sees as a place of exile, akin to where Lot and Esau settled. As firstborns who have lost their status, the two-and-a-half tribes are at the end of the day geographically and spiritually marginalized.

It would be absurd to attempt to paint modern conflicts neatly onto biblical ones. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned: The tensions between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry and between individualism and collectivism are not new. Not only have they not broken us yet, these tensions have enriched us as a people.

We should make sure that they continue to do so by making room for both individualism and shared destiny, by recognizing the essential contribution of every member of our community, by recognizing our legitimate traumas, and by insisting on engaging in curious, respectful, and deeply honest dialogue.

Today, as throughout all of Jewish history, our strength can only come from our shared differences, not in spite of them.

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of the Year Program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. The opinions cited here are hers alone.