Matot Massei – Nationalism and Indifference
Last week we read about the daughters of Tzelofechad, who took a stand for themselves, ensuring that their father’s portion in the land was not forfeited. Their petition was accepted, and served as the vehicle to articulate the law of inheritance as it applies to women.
One cannot ignore the profound sense displayed by the daughters of Tzelofechad of being participants in a communal destiny. A careful reading of their request reveals that they were not merely opportunists seeking to profit from the system. They were not after greater wealth which would be provided to them by directing the plot of land intended for their father to them. It was the deep yearning of a portion in the land promised to their ancestors, a land which was to be their home and seat of their destiny. They could not function as contributors to their society in the capacity they desired without being afforded the means to do so – in this case by being landowners just as every other family started off in the Promised Land.
The great commentator of the turn of the 17th century, Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntcshitz in his work Kli Yakar, brings two great ideas explaining the drive of the daughters of Tzelofechad. In his comments he notes that the women of that generation were not included in the general sins committed by the nation. They had no part in the Golden Calf and they gave no credibility to the report of the spies which was accepted by all the menfolk, causing the long stay of 40 years in the wilderness. Indeed, this is implicated by the verse that amongst them ‘was no man who had come from Egypt except for Caleb and Joshua…’ There was no man, but women whose life spanned this entire era were plentiful. They were not subject to the decree of perishing in the wilderness over the course of the 40 years.
Kli Yakar goes on to assert that women in general have a greater natural love for the land than do men. Women are more faithful to a commitment than men tend to be, and they had made a commitment at Mt. Sinai which they meant to keep.
In Parshat Matot the narrative includes the story of the tribes of Reuven and Gad. The Torah introduces this episode with a comment that these tribes had a great number of livestock. They saw the lands they had just conquered from Sichon and Og as the perfect place for raising livestock. The grass was lush and plentiful. They approached their leader Moshe, asking to be given this land as their territory in lieu of their portion in Israel proper. Moshe’s response was initially negative. Here they had finally completed their sentence of 40 years in the desert due to the people’s lack of desire to enter the land. Now, Moshe was concerned, the motive of Reuven and Gad was similarly driven by fear and lack of desire to live in the Promised Land. He feared this would dampen the will of the rest of the nation, repeating what had happened 40 years earlier.
The tribes of Reuven and Gad assured him that fear was not their drive. They volunteered to spearhead the campaign to conquer the inhabitants of the Promised Land. They resolved not to return home to their families until all the other tribes were settled in their territories, a promise they would fulfill to the letter. Moshe was convinced and he relented, allowing the tribes of Reuven and Gad to settle in the areas they were currently residing in, on the east bank of the Jordan river.
The commentaries struggle to justify the position of the tribes of Reuven and Gad. Is material wealth to be used as an excuse to forfeit their portion in the land they had been yearning to enter ever since the family of Jacob had descended to Egypt? It seems to make little sense, but Moshe didn’t push the matter.
The great Alter of Slobodka finds merit in the position of the tribes of Reuven and Gad. They had great material wealth, and they were keenly aware that this was G-d given. They carried the responsibility of caring for their wealth appropriately and they would not be able to do so in the land of Israel. Their request to receive their inheritance on the east bank was predicated on this weight they carried on their shoulders, and they were even willing to give up the privilege of living in the Promised Land because they viewed this as G-d’s will for them.
Nevertheless, we don’t see remorse among members of this tribe. If we can imagine the daughters of Tzelofachad among the members of these tribes it would not have gone over as well. They would not have resigned themselves to living elsewhere and giving up on their great dream because they had more wealth than the land of Israel could accommodate. Justified as it was, it is clear that these tribes did not share the excitement of their homeland to the same degree.
We see that Moshe recognized this as well and he was concerned for the spiritual welfare of Reuven and Gad. He divided the tribe of Menashe, assiging half of them to live in the east bank, alongside Reuven and Gad. The commentaries note that he did this to ensure there would be constant travel between Israel proper and the east bank, maintaining ties and connections to the rest of the nation. Reuven and Gad put themselves out, demonstrating apathy and indifference to the plight of the nation as a whole. They were content to live apart, to be responsible for themselves without having a strong presence among their fellow tribes. They seceded in a sense, from the union of the tribes of Israel. They would pay a price for this, as these tribes were the first to be exiled and were the first of the tribes to be lost among the nations of the world.
The great Prophetess Devorah, leader and judge of the Jewish nation more than a century later, strongly criticized the tribes of Reuven and Gad for their apathy to the suffrage of Israel. It is no coincidence that this criticism comes from a woman, one dedicated to the cause of her nation.
Our sages defined what it takes to make a minyan, 10 men, forcing them to come together to pray in a quorum, something that goes against the nature of a man. But while they might suffice for a Minyan ten men will not make a community nor will 100 men. A community is built by women, heirs of the daughters of Tzelofachad, who are more oriented toward working together and belonging to a greater whole. It was the women who saved the nation from extinction in Egypt, the women who kept alive the spirit of nationality in the desert and who continue to bring us together as a community today.