Parashat Mattot 5776

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 29 July 2016


“Then [the Gadites and Reubenites] stepped up to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” (Numbers 32:16).

How can we build a safe and secure world for ourselves and those who come after us in times of transition and uncertainty? That is the question raised indirectly by the request of two tribes, the Gadites and Reubenites in this week’s parashah. After the conquest of the territory to the east of the River Jordan, the tribes ask Moses to give this land to them and their families as a holding. It is good cattle country and will provide sufficient pasturing ground for all their needs.

Moses challenges their loyalty: ‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Eternal One has given them?’ That is what your fathers did, he says, referring to the spies, sent to survey the land, who ‘turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land.’ Rashi elaborates on this, suggesting that the rest of the tribes will think that the Gadites and Reubenites are ‘afraid to cross the Jordan River because of the prospect of war and the strength of the cities and the peoples.’

Moses gets them to agree that they cannot back out of the military invasion of the rest of the land. They are to be chalutzim – a word, which in modern Ivrit means ‘pioneers’, but which in the biblical context means ‘ready for war’ or ‘shock-troops’ (32:21). ‘If you fail to do this,’ says Moses, ‘you will have sinned against God and know, that your sin will overtake you.’ And then, inverting the tribal leaders’ own words ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children’, he reminds them that it is their children who should come first, before their property: ‘Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised’ (32:24).

What is wrong with allowing these men and their families to settle in this choicest of spaces? Why insist that they go into battle with their fellow Israelites? If it is security the tribes are seeking, why expose them to the violence of war? Isn’t there something a little far-fetched about Moses’ argument that if the tribes settle down before the invasion, they will ‘bring calamity upon all this people.’ What is the point that Moses is trying to make?

Rabbi Howard Cooper, in an article entitled ‘What is our security?’ tells the story of a man who, one day, is told that he will die from a fall. Such is the terror this generates in him that he decides never to leave his home again. But confining himself to his house doesn’t remove the fear. A sense of security is not so easily gained, for fear has its own authority. He could, after all, fall down the stairs – he lives in a mansion and there are many flights of stairs. So he decides, ‘for safety’s sake’, to confine himself to the ground floor. But soon he realises that the floors downstairs are polished: couldn’t he easily slip and break his neck? The dining-room, however is fully carpeted, so he decides to live only in that room. Ordering his staff to serve his meals there, he never leaves the room. Yet still he feels unsafe: he thinks, ‘I could still stumble and fall, hit my head and die.’ So he orders an armchair to be placed in the middle of the room, away from all sharp objects and hard surfaces and – in a moment of triumphant certitude – insists that his servants tie him down into the chair. A sense of security descends. No danger now of a fall, he thinks. The loss of his freedoms is nothing compared to the relief that his fear can never come true. But when he hears the rustling above him, and feels grains of plaster on his skin, he looks up and sees the ancient crystal chandelier over his chair unmoor itself from its casing and begin to fall towards him…

Perhaps this is the point that Moses is trying to convey to the tribes. By settling prematurely in these territories, building fortresses to protect your children, you create a false sense of security, he implies. Your real security lies in your loyalty to your fellow human beings, supporting them while they are still homeless, fighting their battles and ensuring their material security.

And there is also another kind of security to which Moses alludes – as though he realises that for all the efforts at minimising risk, our physical safety can never really be guaranteed. At times of terrible uncertainty and transition, when – as an A and E worker said to me just this week – a person may set off for work in the morning, but may not make it home that evening – the only security that exists is our sense of spiritual confidence, the ability to hold on to hope and courage and so give others the chance to find their own resilience and inner well-being.

Moses is helping the tribal leaders to acquire a sense of responsibility and altruism towards their fellow Israelites, to look at the bigger picture and to root their sense of security not in the fortified cities of their land, but in something much deeper – in a shared vision, in their loyalty to their people, and in their faith in a God who remains faithful to them.

Security and certainty are not physical constructs for Moses and nor should they be for us. Confidence and well-being are not built by the gates and doors that protect our homes and public buildings, but by the inner capacity we have to conquer anxiety, to renew our faith in ourselves, in our goodness and in our ability to be of use and help to others. It comes from our perception that the things that are really important are those that transcend the physical and material elements of life and from our capability to place our trust in something other, something deeper than ourselves. Call it resilience, or courage, or strength, or even God.

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