Parshat Matot Masei 2017
“This is the way the book ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
This paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous final lines from The Hollow Men seems apt, considering all that has occurred in Bamidbar.
Bamidbar, as Rabbi Jonathan Sachs has pointed out, is about the individualization of the people. They have been brought together and now they begin to champ at the bit and work to free their personalities. This is a process marked by constant tension between the individual and the group, between striking out for yourself and working for the good of the whole.
This is what Korach was about. Granted that he was a flagrant self-aggrandizer who wanted Moshe’s position: he still raises important questions about the relations between leader and group. Is the leader above the law? Is the leader more equal than the people? The fact that he was an opportunist does not detract from the importance of the questions.
We have the spies. They were honored leaders of the twelve tribes, yet when they came back from Canaan their report was that the Israelites would do well to stay away. Was their report a true reflection of their feelings or was it colored by the fear that their positions of leadership within the tribes would be compromised once the people entered the land? We don’t know.
We have Balaam’s curses-turned-blessings, yet the Israelites perversely undermined the blessings by brazenly disobeying God’s basic commandments to them. This, of course, leads to the violent action of one person, Pinchas, to save God’s honor and to save the people from a scourge.
Last week we read about the brave demand by the five daughters of Zelophchad to inherit their father’s estate. They win the right.
And now, in the penultimate parsha, two and a half tribes ask-demand to be allowed to settle east of the Jordan, because of the grazing land for their extensive herds of cattle and sheep. Moshe, who lived through a previous attempt to dissuade the people from crossing the Jordan, is livid and basically accuses the tribes of high treason – going against God’s wishes and turning the people against the very goal of their existence for forty years!
This demand is a clear example of personal goals vs. group goals, and after Moshe’s initial reaction, we see the immense efforts by both sides to prevent a schism in the nation. Their careful negotiations eventually ensure that the tribes’ request is honored but not at the expense of the hard and dangerous work of fighting for the land that the other tribes will settle.
The final parsha recounts 40 years’ worth of way stations in the desert, the borders of the land, the setting up of cities of refuge for cases of accidental manslaughter and finally, in the last paragraph – a reprise of the story of Zelophchad’s daughters – but this time from the tribe’s point of view.
And here we see, yet again, a mighty effort to balance the needs of the individual and of the group. If the daughters who inherit the land marry out of the tribe, the lands of Menashe, the tribe will ultimately be transferred to the husband’s tribe. That’s not good either! And so we have the final verdict. Yes, the daughters can inherit. But they should marry within their tribe so that the inheritance of one tribe will not meander over to another tribe. And we read – that’s what the daughters did and they lived happily ever after. Or not.
So the question is: Is this a bang or a whimper? It looks like a whimper, it sounds like a whimper, it is a whimper, but an important one. The final portion of what is essentially the end of the Torah (Devarim is mostly a repetition with Moshe’s interpretation) reiterates the necessity of ensuring personal fulfillment (to use today’s terminology) while also safeguarding the needs of the nation as a whole.
This is no small issue. The tendency in our small but courageous country is to ignore important opinions from elsewhere in the world unless of course they are anti-Semitic, in which case we shout “gevalt”. A classic example is the decision to invalidate the compromise that was reached about the Kotel, the Western Wall. There will be no separate area for those who want men and women to pray together. So what if the vast majority of Jews in America, South Africa, Australia and other places see this as a slap in the face? And don’t even mention conversion! Our religious establishment can do whatever it pleases and everyone else can go to…wherever they want.
And that’s exactly what will happen. They will go to Florida and Arizona, anywhere but Israel. And forget about their support. In this country, religious (and other coalition) considerations determine political decisions, and let everyone else suck it up.
Of course this happens in other countries as well. But there is no other place that is so dependent on the support of co-religionists abroad. How about a little humility? How about some consideration for others? How about an effort to ensure the unity of the Jews? Therefore I assign as homework to our leaders to mark Rosh Chodesh Av and to expurgate baseless hatred: Re-read parshat Masei 30 times.