This week, we read a double portion from the Torah, the chapters of Matot/Masei. Included in these chapters is a request from two tribes to live outside of Israel. It raises the ongoing question of whether Jews must live in Israel or can we choose to live elsewhere.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad argue that their livelihoods are better suited to the land they saw before entering Israel. Just as the daughters of Zelophehad previously argued to change the laws of inheritance so they could acquire land in Israel, these tribes now argue to change the law, so they do not have to acquire land in Israel. Right from the start, Israel presents a challenge to us where some of us will do anything to be there while others would not.
In the end, Moses strikes a deal with the tribes. They may live outside of Israel if they help acquire the land and ensure that the rest of the nation can live there safely. Once that is accomplished, they may return to their homes outside of Israel. Everyone agrees, and it seems to work well until we are told, a generation later, that there are now challenges of common identity when it comes to everyone’s children.
These ancient questions never resolve. The relationships we all have with Israel are always complex. They include understandings of identity, politics, ethics, religion, family, and peoplehood. Everything we’re taught not to discuss at work or at parties. The strength of the portion in the Torah is the honesty with which everything is raised, discussed and agreed, while showing us that resolutions will be momentary –each generation will face its own Israel challenge.
The last few years we’ve all had our plates full of health concerns, financial changes, and new societal norms. We’re still in the midst of understanding much of what the world looks like now. Through it all, Israel, and our relationship with it, may have faded into the background of our lives. This week the Torah reminds us that even if we do not live there, the commitment, the oneness of nation, and the responsibility to its welfare must never fade.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.