Matot/Masei- Hostile Homelands and Malicious Mothers

Our sedra presents the interesting story of the tribes of Revuen and Gad asking leave of Moshe to settle in the more fertile land of the East Bank of the Jordan River. “Let us settle here,” they tell the Jewish leader, “let us build farms for our animals and houses for our children here.” Moshe initially switches the order of their priorities, which Rashi interprets as a subtle, but pointed reminder of where their priorities should be. He then proceeds with a less subtle argument, lambasting the tribal leaders for their lack of enthusiasm for living in the Holy Land. He reminds them of the spies’ evil sin of hating the Land of Israel and discouraging the Jews from living there, accusing them of trying to do the same:

וַיִּחַר אַף יְהוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְנִעֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה עַד תֹּם כָּל הַדּוֹר הָעֹשֶׂה הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה. וְהִנֵּה קַמְתֶּם תַּחַת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם תַּרְבּוּת אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים לִסְפּוֹת עוֹד עַל חֲרוֹן אַף יְהוָה אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל. כִּי תְשׁוּבֻן מֵאַחֲרָיו וְיָסַף עוֹד לְהַנִּיחוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְשִׁחַתֶּם לְכָל הָעָם הַזֶּה.
And Hashem became angry at Israel and He left them in the desert for forty years, until the end of the generation that did this evil in the eyes of Hashem. And now, you have come forward with the mass of sinners like your parents, to stoke again the fierce anger of Hashem on Israel! For if you turn away from him again, He will again leave you in the desert, and maybe even destroy the entire nation. (במדבר לב:יג-טו)

Moshe warns the leaders of Reuven and Gad that the Jewish People cannot afford another major mess-up like the Sin of the Spies- if they abandon G-d again, and despise His promised land, He will not forgive them, and the Jewish People may never enter Israel.

Reuven and Gad reply: “We’ll build houses for our children and pens for our animals. We’ll even come and fight, and help our brethren settle into Israel, and we won’t return to the East Bank of the Jordan until after the land is divided up.” Moshe relents, and agrees, with the warning that they would be punished severely if they renege on their promise.

After reading Moshe’s initial pushback against Reuven and Gad’s idea, it is very difficult for us to understand how he now accepts it. Yes, the tribal leaders had corrected their priorities, possibly in response to Moshe’s subtle hint- they do mention their families before their belongings- but, they still didn’t resolve Moshe’s more explicit concern. They were willingly giving up their heritage of Eretz Yisrael to stay in a land which they perceived to be richer, not unlike the Spies, and even their offer to help conquer Israel did not lessen this problem. We even see that their claim succeeded in swaying others to their views, just as Moshe had feared, for in Masei, we see that half of the tribe of Menashe had joined their ranks. Why did Moshe “let them off the easy”? How was Reuven and Gad’s seeking wealth outside of Israel different than the sin that the twelve Spies committed?

I believe that the distinction between this request and חטא המרגלים lies in the different nature of their requests. Both of them may have wanted to live outside of Eretz Yisrael, but each group wanted something different. The Spies brought their evil report on the land, because they wanted to return to the Land of Egypt- they wanted to reside in a richer land, under the control of their enemies, far from the sanctity and independence of Israel. The tribes of Reuven and Gad were different- they didn’t want to live in a foreign land, ruled by the nations. Rather, they wanted to take advantage of the empty area adjacent to the Land of Israel to settle, effectively expanding the borders of our homeland. Not only was this not the same מיאוס הארץ that the Spies had- it was very smart and it eventually led to the doubling of the size of Israel (that is until the British gave away the East Bank of the Jordan to become a Muslim country in 1929). Proof of this can be found in Parshat Masei, where cities of refuge are designated on both sides of the Jordan- this would only happen if the land requested by and granted to Reuven and Gad had taken on the same holiness as the original Canaan.

Thus, we’ve shown that a possible explanation for why Moshe did not push the issue of the two tribes wanting to live outside of Israel is because they were quite different from the Spies- they did not want to mislead the nation back into slavery and exile, but rather wanted to spread out and live under their own sovreignty, while expanding the borders of Israel. Moshe must have realized that they were not like the spies, which may have been why he relented after Reuven and Gad promised to help return Eretz Yisrael to Jewish control.

In Em Habanim Semeicha (3:36), Rav Teichtel addresses the severity of submitting ourselves to the control of the nations through a parable, which is based on a Medrash interpreting the passuk “בניך ובנותיך נתונם לאם אחר” דברים כח:לב as saying “your children will be given to another mother.”

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Imagine that a child is separated from his mother at a young age. He is given to another woman, who raises him as if she is his mother (Yiddish speakers may appreciate Rav Teichtel’s use of the phrase ‘shtif mama’). She raises him in her culture, very different from his birth mother’s and his nation, and soon he begins to forget his roots (a la Yaakov Shwekey’s “Shema Yisrael,” as my chavruta aptly pointed out). As he grows older, he embraces his new adopted nation, putting in effort to shed his past and become “one of them.” But, what happens in the end? The “shtif mama” and her culture will abandon him in a second, when it stops being convenient for them, and all of that effort and energy invested in becoming “one of them” will have been for naught.

The explanation for this is obvious. When the Jewish People, separated from their mother (Eretz Yisrael) and forced to live with a “shtif mama” (lands of the nations), begin to divorce their culture and put effort into becoming one of the nations, it does not end well, because, as history as shown, citizens of our other “homelands” do not support us when we need them. In Rav Teichtel’s own words: “כאשר בעונינו הרבים, ראינו את זה בעינינו, את כל הנעשה עמנו בארצות אירופה- as, in our sins, we’ve seen with our own eyes in the lands of Europe.” Rav Teichtel believed that the Holocaust was a perfect example of the “shtif mama” abandoning her adopted charges- when the Jewish People of Europe cared more about being European than being Jewish, the Europeans stopped supporting them and eventually enabled the deaths of over six million of our brethren.

This is the danger of relying too much on our adopted nations, and this could very well be the danger that Moshe initially warned against when he perceived that leaders of Reuven and Gad were following in the footsteps of the Spies. If Hashem abandoned them just as the Spies had abandoned Him and their mother land, instead seeking the “shtif mama” of Egypt, then the result could very well be “וְשִׁחַתֶּם לְכָל הָעָם הַזֶּה,” destruction very much like the one Rav Teichtel lamented in his tragic time.

I have no doubt that we ourselves are also entering very similarly turbulent times. Our people, chased from one “shtif mama” to another, have managed to hang on to our existence and keep on going. Ever since the ability to return to our true mother became a reality in 1948, many Jews have yet to return to her, each for different reasons. Some take the pragmatic approach of Reuven and Gad- wanting to have space for their multitudes of children and belongings (“parnasa”), they live a cautious existence, mixing with their neighbors without becoming overly entrenched in their adopted culture. Others, unfortunately, become too immersed as the Spies intended, proudly adopting Western culture as their own, while their true mother patiently awaits their reunion after so many years apart. No matter which approach is taken, there is certainly an investment of energy in becoming “one of the them,” trying to coexist in our adopted cultures and cling to the “shtif mama.”

Unfortunately, our “shtif mama”‘s in the United States, France, the UK, and others have forgone their relationship with their adopted children in favor of a nuclear agreement with a country who proudly burns Israeli and American flags in their capital, pledging the destruction of Western Culture. Iran, whose capital Tehran sits less than 1000 miles away from Tel Aviv, had promised to continue their nuclear program and send dirty missiles towards the Jewish homeland. Despite this, and in a ridiculous effort to reopen economic channels and ensure that the President of the United States has actually accomplished something during his eight years in office, the Western Powers decided to negotiate a deal with the Islamic Republic, and their meetings bore fruit as a nuclear deal was signed on July 15th. (Ironically and fittingly, the US is losing its own identity of democracy, and its long-gone ideal of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, in trying to “kiss up” to the “shtif mama” of Iran)

Many Jews in the United States and Europe began speaking up on Wednesday, claiming that their nations have abandoned them by signing a nuclear deal with Iran. However, this is not true- Western powers abandoned our people by even negotiating with Iran in the first place, giving the terrorist regime an opening to receive sanction relief while continuing to develop its program. The agreement, which at best delays Iran’s ability to develop nuclear missiles on the off chance it actually follows the rules, only adds insult to injury as it demonstrates how little the Western countries value the existence of the state of Israel and their own safety (who do they imagine will be next on the list after us?).

July 15, 2015 was a sad day, but not only because of the finalization of nuclear deal. It is sad in that it drove home how much trust we’ve put into our “shtif mama”‘s, and how wrong we were to trust in them. With Hashem’s help, we will see an end to our terrible enemies, and a return of all of Am Yisrael to its true “mother,” the Land of Israel, very very soon.