Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Mas’ei 5776
The Holy Lands of Israel
God spoke to Moshe, telling him to give the Israelites instructions and say to them: ‘You are coming to the land known as Canaan; this is the land that you will inherit, the Land of Canaan and its borders.’ (Bamidbar 34:1-2)
As the book of B’midbar comes to an end, the Israelites stand poised on the border of the Holy Land and the long-awaited realization of the destiny of the Jewish People. These verses preface the enumeration of the borders of the land that will be theirs, and they are strange verses indeed: ‘This is the place you are to settle. This is the Promised Land. This, and no other.’ The impetus for these strange statements was apparently the unexpected request, recorded in the preceding parashah, by the members of two tribes.
As opposed to the litany of complaints we (and Moshe) had become accustomed to over the course of the Israelites’ travels through the desert - about everything from water shortages to uninteresting food choices and general grumblings about the long years spent in the desert – this last request is something new. The conversation in general has turned to the particulars of inheritance of the Land – who will get what, and where. And though we are not privy to the reactions of the tribes to the entire subject of land allotment or to their thoughts on the subject, a number of tribes set themselves apart – quite literally – by expressing their desire to settle on the “East Bank” of the Jordan River.
Moshe is outraged by the request, and he responds with a powerful accusation. He deems the behavior of these tribes as akin to another group who not only did not wish to enter Israel, but caused fear and rebellion to spread throughout the camp: the spies, whose report sparked a chain reaction that led to forty years of exile. To Moshe’s ears, the request by the tribes of Reuven and Gad smacked of the same cowardice he had heard forty years earlier, and he was terrified that the same result might ensue – or worse: It is one thing to make terrible mistakes, but it is quite another thing to repeat those same mistakes.
Moshe’s response forces the members of the two tribes to clarify their position, and they express both courage and fraternal responsibility: Their intention, they explain, is not to divorce themselves from the nation nor to reject their own role in fulfilling their shared national destiny. Their interest is a practical, economic concern; the lands that have already been captured on the East Bank are ideal grazing lands for their cattle. If they are given Moshe’s blessing, they will settle these areas, but they give their word that they will join the other tribes, and fight - not only shoulder to shoulder with their brethren but as the vanguard force - until all of the Promised Land is won. They are no cowards, nor are they fomenters of rebellion or of despair.
Moshe’s fears are allayed and a deal is struck, yet we, the readers, are mystified by these renegade tribes. What could they have been thinking? They stand at the border of the Promised Land. Hundreds of years of yearning are about to come to an end. It is clear that God Himself is fighting their battles, in fulfillment of the promise He made to Avraham. Why now, as their hopes and dreams are about to be realized, do these tribes jump ship?
There may be a clue to their mindset in those promises God made to Avraham, and we would do well to consider the borders of the “Promised Land.” The area promised to Avraham is much, much larger than most of us imagine. In fact, even the most “extreme” among today’s nationalist expansionists do not dare dream of the borders promised to Avraham in what is known as the Covenant of the Pieces:
On that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land, from the Egyptian River [i.e., the Nile] as far as the great river, the Euphrates; [the lands of] the Kenites, the Kenizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Yevusites. (Bereishit 15)
The tribes of Gad and Reuven seem to believe that these expansive borders include the East Bank of the Jordan River; indeed, it would be difficult for us to argue that this swath of land is not included in the expansive borders first promised to Avraham. These tribes felt completely justified in their request; they did not see any reason to be accused of infidelity to the dream of the Promised Land – because the tract they had set their eyes on was, in fact, part of what had been promised. The only issue that had remained unaddressed was the question of their fidelity to the other tribes – a question for which they provided a very clear answer: They would fulfill their obligation.
We should note that at the dawn of our national history, Avraham was commanded to leave the place of his birth and to go to a new land, where he would enjoy blessings beyond anything he had yet imagined. Although the precise destination was not revealed to him, Avraham uprooted his household and traversed no small distance, making his way to the Land of Canaan. He seems to have intuited that this was holy land, land most suited to the spiritual character of the family he hoped to raise and to the nation God had promised would be born. Apparently, though, the very vast area promised to him includes differing levels of holiness. The Greater Israel outlined in the Covenant of the Pieces is made up of some areas that are less spiritually endowed than others; Avraham passed through these outlying areas of Canaan but remained focused on the spiritual heartland, the narrow confines that now stretched out before the Israelites and had yet to be conquered.
This explains the strange wording of the verses with which we began: The Torah’s peculiar emphasis of the borders of the Land of Canaan refers to the area that is the spiritual epicenter of the Promised Land. It is the area Avraham sought out, the land Yitzchak and Yaakov called home, the land imbued with the highest level of holiness. This is the land that must be captured and settled first; outlying areas taken as spoils of wars could be annexed to the Land of Israel – but only after the Land of Israel was theirs. These other areas may have been included in the promise made to Avraham, but they were not endowed with the holiness of Israel proper. Avraham himself knew this; he felt this to be true, and that is why he continued his travels until he arrived in the Land of Canaan and made his home there. The tribes of Reuven and Gad seemed either insensitive to or uninterested in this holiness.
There is another element of this troubling exchange that haunts us, despite the fact that a deal was eventually struck to everyone’s satisfaction. As the entire nation stands ready to begin the conquest of the Promised Land, there is one person, the last of his entire generation, who cannot cross the Jordan River; he must remain outside the Land of Israel, on the very same East Bank these breakaway tribes hope to settle. How hurtful this conversation must have been for Moshe! How callous were these tribes, who spoke words that must have sounded to Moshe like the flippant, ungrateful demands of spoiled children. While Moshe must stay on this side of the Jordan as a punishment, it seems that these tribes could not care less about crossing into Israel proper. How bizarre that they would choose, even embrace, the punishment of exile that Moshe (like all of their own parents) had to bear - even if they may have succeeded in deluding themselves into thinking that their communities are holy, and that they live in the land promised to Avraham. Even today, how are those who continue – by choice - to perpetuate the punishment of exile capable of deluding themselves? Perhaps they have learned more than we imagined from the tribes of Reuven and Gad. Not all the land promised to Avraham is “The Promised Land;” no matter how “holy” the community outside the Land of Israel, how are they able to justify ignoring God’s will, turning their backs on Avraham’s vision, and making a mockery of Moshe’s dream?
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