“We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Lord, into the Land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holdings across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32:32)
The closing chapters of Numbers address the settlement of Canaan, the Promised Land. Ostensibly, this is what the Israelites have been waiting and hoping for since leaving Egypt. It is surprising, then, that in Parashat Matot two tribes, Reuben and Gad, approach Moses and say they would rather stay on the eastern side of the Jordan. It seems the land there is good for their livestock. Moses chastises them for spurning God’s gift and dividing the people. The two tribes reassure Moses they intend to participate in the conquest of the land, and in fact, will serve as the “shock troops” and will not return to their own pastures until every Israelite is settled in the land. Moses has them swear before God and the deal is done.
David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and arguably one of the most significant figures in its history, defined Zionism as the act of moving to Israel. But Parashat Matot illustrates in stunning fashion a reality of Jewish life: not every Jew wants to live in Israel. Matot says that is OK. But Matot also teaches that regardless of where you choose to live, you are connected to Israel and obligated to Israel. Reuben and Gad can’t settle in Trans-Jordan until after all the Jews who want are settled in Canaan. I’m not Ben Gurion, but I’d call that Zionism.
Matot defines Zionism broadly: active engagement in strengthening Israel. JCCs follow Matot’s lead; committed to the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people, JCCs invite their members to explore for themselves Israel’s meaning in their lives.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom