This week we read a double portion, Matot and Ma’asei. One of the central narrative points of the Parsha is the story of the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half the tribe of Menashe deciding that they do not want to enter the Land of Israel, rather, they want to stay outside the Land where the land is fertile and life might be easier. Moses eventually agrees to this, but the deal that they strike ensures that the tribes outside the Land fight for the tribes that are inside. Was the decision of the tribes to remain outside of the Land a right and just decision?
One midrash in our tradition tries to answer this question. “Three gifts (matanot/מתנות) were created in the world, if one merits in one of them, one can take delight in the whole world. If one merits wisdom, one merits in everything. If one merits in strength, one merits in everything. If one merits in wealth, one merits in everything. When is this the case? In a time when they are conditioned (matnot/מתנות) from on high, and come through the power of Torah, but human strength and wealth are absolutely nothing, so says Solomon ‘Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all’ (Ecc. 9:11)...And these gifts, when they do not come from the Holy Blessed One, they will eventually run out” (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7). This midrash is teaching us that when one merits blessing, then life is good and good things come in abundance. However, these blessings must have been achieved through an understanding that they come from heaven, and Torah was involved in the process. The quote from Ecclesiastes is to remind us that the only thing that is certain in this world, is not our achievements, but that time will catch up to all of us. This midrash condemns the decision to stay outside the Land, concluding that they were the first tribes to be exiled specifically because of their decision to separate themselves from their brothers.
The Sfas Emes* teaches “that the portion in the Land allotted to these tribes was ready for them. However, the Divine desire was that that portion be made ready for the one who wants to receive it though Torah” (Matot 5639). The Sfas Emes emphasizes that “this is the essence of our work/avodah. As Jews, we need to lift up that which is around us through the power of Torah, only then does it become permanent. Therefore, we need to pray every day for the sustenance. Even the one who is not lacking is his/her livelihood [must pray for sustenance]! For the essence of our service of the heart/avodah she’ba’lev (prayer) is so that no person is lacking. That is why the Sages established eighteen blessings/brachot for the needs of all humanity** so that it becomes clear that everything that any of us has comes from God, and that they never become detached [in our minds], God forbid, from the Source of Life.” On the surface, it would appear that the Sfas Emes is also significantly troubled by the decision of the tribes to remain outside of the Land. They lack a fundamental understanding of a crucial aspect of the Jewish ethos: that we seek physical pleasure and comfort specifically through Torah and service/avodah. And because the tribes do not get this, it may be better that they stayed outside of the Land, since they could not have elevated their lot without that understanding.
However, I believe that the Sfas Emes is more open to nuance than it would first appear. He specifically mentions that one must pray for the wellbeing of all, even if one’s personal needs have been met. Service has two aspects. There is the service of the heart (prayer), and serving those that need help. Mentioning one implies the other.ꜜ The two and a half tribes seem to understand this. Their pledge says it all, “Then they came up to him and said, ‘We will build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, but we will take up arms as a vanguard before the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place. Meanwhile our little ones will stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until all the Israelites have obtained their inheritance” (Num. 32:16-18).
In the world that we live, there are ideals and there is reality. Ideally, we would all be living lives fully in accordance with the Torah and see God’s hand in all that we do. This is an extremely difficult approach to maintain, even for those who are so inclined to it. In reality, many of us do what is best for us and our families, simply, because we need to provide for those in our charge and we would like to enjoy our lives. This Parsha reminds us that there is an ideal. We should try and elevate our actions and all that we see in this world in recognition that it comes from God. And the Parsha is also recognizing that life on its own is hard enough, and that if we have opportunities to make it easier, it is ok to take them. But, if we should become lucky enough to stumble upon fertile ground, it is upon us to help our brothers and sisters, so that they too may live in comfort.
*Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
**The Amidah is specifically composed in first-person plural language.
ꜜIf we are praying for something, we better also be working to make it a reality. We do not rely on miracles.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.