Covenant and Cattle
As the Children of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land, their backs to the wilderness after 40 years of wandering, the Torah, too, seems to change direction—and even tone. It trades instructions for the priests and narratives of Israelite disobedience for details of land distribution, inheritance and other laws that will regulate life inside the Land. It is as if the Torah wants to underline the transition about to occur—from wilderness to settlement, disorder to order—by changing the visual image before the reader’s eyes. We move from unbounded and undifferentiated empty space to a filled-in grid of townships and property lines.
From now on, the text implicitly declares, Israel will lack the luxury of expectation. Theory must be translated into practice. Principles will be put to the test. No more imagining the Land of milk and honey from afar. A far harder task awaits: living there.
Contemporary Jews, whether Israelis or citizens of the Diaspora, can easily relate to this imperative—and to the discomfort it provokes. We are summoned to the Land by history and covenant: still praying for return to it at every worship service; identifying renewed life in the Land with redemption and fulfillment. But we must deal with nitty-gritty matters like unemployment, air pollution, and bureaucracy. One is inspired by the Jewish State, raised up in pride and wonder —and sometimes one is forcibly pulled down to earth because the Jewish State acts like any other state, and its government like any other government. Jews there— and here— want to serve the ideals of Covenant, but often find themselves in thrall to what Zionist thinkers call “normalcy”— interests, money, power. One asks ruefully, echoing the Torah, “Is this really the best that we—or God—can do?”
The point at which Parashat Mattot poses that question most dramatically, I think, is at the start of chapter 32, when it tells us matter-of-factly that the tribes of Reuben and Gad “owned cattle in great numbers” and saw that “the lands of Jazer and the Gilead were a region suitable for cattle.” (v.2) Those areas lay outside the Promised Land to which Israel was bound. Did God take the Israelites out of Egypt, lead them by cloud and fire though the wilderness, enter into a covenant with them at Sinai, give them unique laws and unparalleled access to God’s presence—so that two Israelite tribes could profit by raising cattle on conquered territory that happens to be well-suited to that business? Is Covenant to be swept aside so easily in favor of normalcy? The Children of Israel came all this way, for that?
Moses displays understandable anger at the suggestion. Mocking the two tribes’ pretense that their action would serve the entire community rather than their own selfish interests, he replies, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” Suppose every tribe acted this way! He reminds them that the Land given by God to Israel lies across the Jordan. Moses even compares the request of Reuben and Gad to the rebellion of the spies, as if to say: we wandered 40 years because of that mistake, and now, just as we are poised to enter the Land, you “sinful men” (v. 14) want to engage in a similar lack of obedience and faith?
The text further underlines the conflict between normalcy and Covenant by recounting two more stages in the negotiation between the representatives of these two principles. Reuben and Gad agree to build pens for their flocks and towns for their children and then stand in the front lines as the Israelites fight to conquer the Land, to which they formally renounce any claim. Moses is appeased: “You shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under the Lord.” (v. 22) They reply with respectful deference to Moses and due mention of the Lord, and he, signaling final approval of the deal, transmits its terms to the Israelite leaders who, unlike him, will cross into the Land and wield authority there. Finally—sealing the deal, as it were—the Gadites and Reubenites say the words that Moses had wanted to hear from them all along. “Whatever the Lord has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do.” Lest we think that Covenant has completely vanquished normalcy, however, the tribes reiterate the terms to which they have agreed: they will take the lead in the battle for Canaan, and in return keep hereditary holdings across the Jordan (vv. 31-32). They got their wish, we learn, in the narrative that follows, joined at some point by half the tribe of Manasseh.
Readers who approach the Torah in search of spirituality or enlightenment are bound to be disappointed by passages such as this one. Judaism does offer spirituality and enlightenment in abundance, much of it originating in the Torah—but the text’s focus much of the time, as in this week’s portion, is not on any world to come, or transport to a higher realm beyond normal, fleshly experience, but on what can be achieved here and now, by individuals and societies, if we do what God wants of us and makes possible for us. Many contemporary Jews (and Gentiles too) experience closeness to God and other spiritual highs in the Land of Israel, whether standing on the site where the Temple once stood, or walking as Jesus did on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or celebrating the Sabbath and holy days in Haifa or Tel Aviv. But the State, like the Torah, concentrates day by day on institutionalizing the pursuit of justice, incorporating care of the poor into social policy, and providing the prerequisites for living as God commands—of which none is more basic than survival.
Portions of the Torah like those we read this week make is clear that the tension between normalcy and Covenant is irresolvable. Service to the Covenant will forever require normalcy —and stand in judgment of it. Not every step taken for the sake of “interests” or “self-defense” will enjoy the Torah’s blessing, just because it is done in the name of Covenant. Valid Jewish ends do not justify every means that Jews adopt.
Consider the troubling story that directly precedes the one about Reuben and Gad in this week’s parashah. The Lord commands Moses to order Israel to take revenge on the Midianites—the tribe to which his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Jethro belonged; the tribe that gave him shelter when he fled from Pharaoh— for their seduction of the Israelites at Baal-Peor. This is done. Every Midianite male is killed. The Israelite soldiers bring back the women and children as captives, only to be told by Moses (31:17-18) that they must “slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a male carnally.” Only girls who have not had sex with a man are to be spared.
This is awful. There is no apologizing for it. Many commentators through the ages, and still today, deal with the passage by saying nothing about it, perhaps believing —with good reason, sadly— that this is what happens in war; it happened then, and it still happens now. Such is the brutal world as it was, is, and always shall be until the Messiah comes: normalcy with a vengeance, crying out to be made subject to the divine demands of Covenant.
I read the passage as urgent instruction, imperative mitzvah, to undertake that work. Even war must be subjected to strictures that distinguish just from unjust ways of doing battle. One has to move beyond the mindset, still widespread in 2015, that punishes women for the desire aroused in males. And we should certainly avoid fundamentalist readings of Torah that blame God for the appalling acts of cruelty attributed to God by human authors who thought they were being faithful in their report of God’s commands, but confused their own limited notions of what is right and how to serve God, notions shaped by their own interests and desires, as well as their cultures and experiences with what God in fact wants of human partners. The latter is enunciated forcefully elsewhere in Torah, again and again. Vengeance is not justice. Murder of women and children is not compassion. Persecution of strangers is not love of strangers. Normalcy, now as ever, is not Covenant.
The Jewish people has not wandered the wilderness for forty years and the world for 20 centuries, just to find and hold onto the best grazing land for our cattle.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).