How pure does the coalition have to be? This is the question of the moment. Within the Jewish community, as well as in the broader political world—groups on both sides of the aisle are looking at the people standing next to them, working with them for a joint cause, and wondering how much room there is for difference when it comes to vision and goals. We recognize the need to work together and the need for participation and support from as many people as possible. And yet, when someone reveals a motive we don’t share—and that we might not understand, we get scared and even more so, we get angry. What makes diversity within our ranks so scary? What is it that we are we afraid of?
If you have been feeling the weight of this burden as a Jewish leader, you are in good company. Moses, our ultimate leader, shared the same struggle. In Parshat Mattot we find Moses at the end of a forty-year journey, finally ready to lead his people across the Jordan River and into the Holy Land. They are gearing up for a big fight and are going to need the participation and support of each person from each tribe. It is in this moment, a moment when Moses most needs a strong coalition, that differing agendas surface. It turns out that two of the twelve tribes, Reuben and Gad, don’t actually want to cross the Jordan River. They have cattle to feed, and the land they have already conquered is ideal for cattle.. Enough progress has been made for them to feel comfortable, and they would prefer to bow out now.
How would you respond to such a request? After all, the suggestion that they remain on the far side of the Jordan is actually very practical. They want what is best for their families and their livestock. Their absence might mean more space within the Land for the other tribes to share. Their offer could be seen as wise, and perhaps even generous. Yet this is not how Moses sees it.
Moses feels betrayed. He sees their request as a threat to the entire enterprise. His response, in Numbers 32:6, contains two questions which each reveal a different concern. He opens, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” This first challenge is a practical one: We need you on this mission. You should pull your weight and not abandon the group. But it is Moses’s next question and the rant that follows, that reveal the depth of his fear and anger: “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the LORD has given them?” Moses articulates his fear of betrayal and then starts in on a history lesson: “That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land…” Moses goes on to recount the entire story of the corrupt spies of the former generation in specific detail. He re-lives the trauma of that experience, and how it felt in that moment that the Israelites might not make it through the challenges ahead. He reminds them of the punishment too—none of that generation is alive today.
By the time the rant is over, Moses is worked up. He is angry, and ready to condemn them as traitors: “14 And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to the LORD’s wrath against Israel.” Moses believes that the desire not to continue the fight will be contagious, and will corrupt the other tribes, eroding the cohesion of the people and sabotaging the mission. He can feel the whole project slipping away, and is ready to place the blame on Reuben and Gad.
It can be hard, if not impossible, when faced with a difficult leadership moment, to avoid bringing baggage from a bad past experience. Although the Torah explains to us that the land was uniquely well-suited for these tribes, Moses misses this fact. The fact that these two tribes want to break from the group—the fact that they want their own individualized settlement plan— triggers in Moses a fear of the people’s disloyalty. He has committed his life to bringing one people to one land. If some part of that people rejects the vision, he imagines they all might do so. His fear of disloyalty overshadows his ability to see any practicality in their request.
Even with thousands of years of hindsight, the situation is complicated. Commentators, ancient and modern, might disagree about the legitimacy of Moses’s fear, and his eventual move toward inclusion. If we shift our perspective from that of Moses, to that of the leaders of Gad and Reuben, we find different questions and different lessons. These leaders choose to include themselves in a coalition that is fighting for something they don’t personally need. They find a way to remain part of the group. They recommit to the fight. How do we make similar choices today? What are our limits? Which projects are important enough to keep fighting for? How do we keep our society moving towards a “Promised Land”?
Rabbi Avi Killip serves as Vice President of Strategy and Programs and Director of Project Zug at Mechon Hadar. Avi was ordained from Hebrew College’s pluralistic Rabbinical School in Boston. She is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brandeis University in Jewish Studies and Women & Gender Studies. Rabbi Killip teaches on the faculty at Hadar, and is host of the podcast Responsa Radio.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.