Friday, July 17, 2015

On Solidarity, Selfishness, and Respecting the Journey: Parashat Matot Massei

       Moses' life was one of constant pain and frustration.  He expected that in return for the blessings that the the Israelites received, they would submit to the will of God and actualize the lessons of Torah.  For most of his life, he was deeply disappointed.  In this week's portion, parashat Matot-Massei, Moses is yet again disappointed in the Jewish people acting in a way inconsistent with the lessons of their history and Torah.  In particular, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask for portions of the Land of Israel separate from the rest of the Israelites, and seem to be more concerned with locating quality pasture land for their livestock than with building cities for their children or standing in solidarity with the rest of the nation.  Both Moses and God were furious that they could be so selfish and materialistic.  Moses' anger isn't quelled until they promise that they will not take these lands until they have fought and made sure that every Israelite can inherit their portion.
          Obviously, it would have been better if those two tribes made evident their solidarity with the rest of the nation before making their request.  At the same time, it was clear that they learned from their leaders' anger.  In order to live in a way that truly shows an appreciation for the blessings and teachings they have received, they must make sure that everyone has their portion before taking possession of their own.  Someone who lives in a way consonant with Jewish values does not take for herself before making sure there is enough for everyone in her community, and that all have access to take what is theirs.  A Jew who exhibits understanding of Torah is not a hazer (a pig), taking the best for himself without regard for the needs of others.  A Jew who is committed to a Torah lifestyle does not put the "I" before the "we."  If there are two core Jewish texts that have inspired me in my work as a rabbi, they are, "You shall not separate yourself from the community," and "Each Jew is responsible for one another."  These two statements -- one from Hillel the Elder and the other from the Gemara -- affirm that communal responsibility is at the core of Jewish life, not individual fulfillment.  When we put God and community at the center of our decisions, we show respect for Torah, its Author, and those who received this holy text with us.
         That said, we are not always perfect.  Some of us (I am often guilty of this) are the first ones on the kiddush line, filling our plates without regard for how many other folks are in the room or how much is available. And we would often rather forget our past sins, where we were when we committed them, and the folks who rebuked us effectively so that we could become better versions of ourselves.  In the same way, the Israelites would have preferred to forget their years of forced wandering, the trials they faced, and all of the impediments that stood in between them and the Promised Land.  Rashi writes that the Torah reminds them of their wanderings in the Book of Numbers, not in order to shame them, but in order to encourage and comfort them.  Drawing upon the Midrash, he explains, "... R. Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23:3]   God and Torah remind us of our journeys, even our most difficult ones, not in order to dredge up painful memories, but in order to remind us how far we've come, and how we've been cleansed and improved by the hardships we have faced.
          We are all on journeys to be better people, and to improve as a Jewish nation.  Let us remember our responsibility to put the community first, even when better pastures lay elsewhere, and even when we'd prefer to run away from the difficulties and messiness of living in community.  And let us also not bury our most painful memories (personal or communal.)  Without our trials and mistakes, we never learn nor do we grow.  Rather, let us ritualize the telling, and recall the pain with pride as proof of how much we've grown and how far we have come.

Shabbat Shalom.