וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי־גָד וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה …אִם־מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ יֻתַּן אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַֽעֲבָדֶיךָ לַֽאֲחֻזָּה אַל־תַּֽעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּֽן
Va’yavo’u v’nei Gad uv’nei Reuven va’yomru el Moshe: … “Im matzanu hein b’einekha, yutan et ha’aretz ha’zot la’avadekha la’akhuzah; al ta’avireinu et ha’Yardein.”
The men of Reuven and Gad came and said to Moses … “Do us this favor and let us remain here; do not make us cross the Jordan” (Numbers 32:2, 5).
As we approach the end of Sefer Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, the children of Israel have conquered lands on the east side of the Jordan, the plains of Moab, and are encamped there. They are anticipating completing their long journey and crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
At this point, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moses and the leadership of the 12 tribes. They explain that Moab is cattle country, and that Reuven and Gad are cattle breeders. They want to settle here, rather than accompany the rest of the Israelites across the Jordan into Canaan.
Moses chastises them: “Are your brothers to go to war while you remain here? Do not take the heart out of your kinsmen as they prepare to cross over into the land that YHVH promised them!” (Numbers 32:6–7). Moses reminds them that a generation ago, their fathers had returned from scouting the Promised Land and discouraged the Children of Israel from entering the land. That incident resulted in 40 years of wandering. Moses insists that the tribes of Reuven and Gad must maintain solidarity with their kin: “If you turn away now … you will bring calamity upon the entire people!” (Numbers 32:15).
Reuven and Gad accept Moses’ argument. They offer to send their troops across the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites and promise to return to these lands only after the land of Canaan across the Jordan has been secured. Moses accepts this compromise, and permits them to build towns for their families and pens for their flocks and herds. Only in solidarity will the Israelites be able to complete their journey. Gad and Reuven will not abandon them.
This story is, of course, emblematic of one of the unwavering principles of Judaism: the primacy of community. The “Wicked Child” in the Passover Haggadah is labeled as such because he does not think of himself as part of the community: “What does the wicked child say? ‘What does all this ritual mean to you?’ To you and not to him, for he has withdrawn himself from the community.” The Haggadah explains that this behavior has dire consequences: “Had this child been in Egypt, he would not have been liberated [because he no longer identified with the Children of Israel].”
Had the tribes of Reuven and Gad decided long before this week’s Torah portion that they liked the verdant pastures of the Land of Goshen back in Egypt, and did not want to leave slavery, then they, too, would not have been liberated. They would have opted out of the terror and exaltation of crossing the Red Sea, and of hearing the voice of God at Mount Sinai. They would not have had to declare, “We will do, and we will listen!” when asked to enter a moral covenant with YHVH, Life Unfolding. They would have avoided the trials of the sojourn in the wilderness, and the struggle and fulfillment of conquering the Promised Land.
Remaining committed to the Jewish People is a mixed bag, to say the least. One does not get to enjoy the blessings of being a Jew without also partaking in the difficulties. Of course, this is true of any committed relationship, and that is what Judaism asks of us: to be committed to one another and to our collective project of bringing holiness into the world. The Talmud declares, כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh — “All Israel are responsible for one another” (BT Shevuot 39a); Hillel famously taught, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר Al tifrosh min ha’tzibur — “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4).
In past eras, our solidarity was almost always enforced by external pressure. Because we were not accepted in the majority culture, we were forced to rely on each other. In modern times, those external restrictions have at times eased to the point where our affiliation to the Jewish whole has become almost entirely voluntary. Certainly, we American Jews are experiencing such a period. There is no Pharaoh to force us together against our will, and there is no Moses to bring us together through shared aspirations. The tribes of Reuven and Gad are free to go their own way without consequence. Like cowboys on the great frontier, shouldn’t they be free to lead their herds wherever the grazing is good? Shouldn’t we be free to follow our own goals and desires? Isn’t that what freedom is all about?
This particularly American myth of the rugged individual, the self-made man (for this is a mostly masculine ideal) is a fallacy. YHVH frees the slaves not so that they might each go their own way seeking individual fulfillment, but so that they might together create a just society that is concerned with the well-being of all of its members. For Judaism, this is the purpose for which we were created. For Judaism, there is no “I” without a “We.”
The Jewish emphasis on community is an antidote to our era’s self-absorbed fantasies of unfettered individualism. I have met many non-Jews who are drawn to Judaism for precisely that reason; they yearn for a community where people are deeply invested in each other’s lives. It is a classic irony: While many Jews are longing to escape what feels to them like an overbearing and suffocating community, others look in at us longingly, wishing to have what we often seek to escape.
In 1952, sociologists Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog wrote a classic study of Jewish shtetl life, Life Is With People. I have always loved that title. I think it captures the Jewish ethos perfectly.
My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, liked to put it this way: “The only way to get it together is together.” I’m sure Moses would agree; it’s the only way we will get to the Promised Land.