Rabbi Lisa Edwards’ Weekly 10 Minutes of Torah (Week 9)
Our own Rabbi Lisa Edwards was chosen to give “10 Minutes of Torah” for the past nine weeks at the Reform Judaism’s website.
Here in the week of the Fourth of July, we come to the end of this year’s reading of B’midbar with a double portion, Matot/Mas-ei. The fighting, rebellion, and violence that we’ve seen throughout B’midbar find echoes in the American Revolutionary War, already underway when the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. The birth of a nation seldom happens without violence, even when one believes-as the Israelites believed, as the Early Americans believed-that God was on their side. In fact, more than a few Revolutionary War leaders compared their plight under King George to the plight of the Israelites when they were still slaves in Egypt.1
Last week as we read Parashat Pinchas, we took note of the way God and Moses were perhaps trying to move the people toward a more human rule of law, albeit based on God-given laws. The plans for the future without Moses do not include random violence or anarchy, despite the ongoing preparations for battles and wars as they get ready to enter the Promised Land. Especially among the Israelites themselves, the end of B’midbar brings two examples of the kind of reasoned discussion and strategic planning that Moses and God may have been training them for all along, and especially once the Israelites enter the Promised Land without Moses.
In these concluding Torah portions of the Book of Numbers, we find illustrations of the way plans can (or should) be alterable by mutual agreement. In Parashat Matot, we find the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan, cattle country so rich that two and a half tribes who are cattlemen-the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh-ask to remain there rather than go into the Land: “it would be a favor to us . . . if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan” (Numbers 32:5). Moses immediately suspects them: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (32:6). After some explanations and negotiations, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh agree to be shock-troops for the rest of the Israelites by entering into battle first, provided they can then return and dwell on the east side of the Jordan. Moses does not live to see the plan accomplished, but we can find the plan still firmly in place when we read beyond Torah and into the Book of Joshua, the first book of the next section of the Hebrew Bible (see Joshua, chapters 1, 4, 13).
The compromise serves the special interests of these tribes and presumably the greater good, though it is a radical departure from God’s forty-year plan for all of the surviving generations of the two and a half tribes to move into the land west of the Jordan.