July 10, 2021, 1 Av 5781
Torah: Numbers 30:2-36:13; Triennial 32:1-33:49
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Diasporic Dispersal, Then and Now
The first of the two parshiyot we read this week, Matot, concludes with the request of two of the twelve tribes to remain on the near side of the Jordan River and settle in the vast cattle country of Gilad rather than making their home in the land of Israel along with the rest of the Israelites. Moshe, not surprisingly, is outraged by their request. After all, he has been leading the people for nearly four decades toward the land that God has promised, a land that he himself fervently wishes to enter but has recently been told that he may not. How could the members of these two tribes, Reuven and Gad, so brazenly spurn the covenantal promise?
Ultimately, once he learns that these men will first support their fellow Israelites by fighting alongside them, Moshe relents, thereby allowing for the creation of a Jewish diaspora. But his initial outrage sends shockwaves through the generations, particularly in the Talmudic era, where the rabbis offer a range of vehement opinions regarding the importance of settling in the land of Israel and the role of diasporic dispersal — offering us a way of thinking in our own day about how the Jewish people may stand united even when so many Jews make their homes on the other side of the Jordan, and beyond.
Throughout the Talmud, and particularly in early rabbinic sources from the first two centuries of the common era, a plethora of rabbinic voices champion the value of living in the land of Israel. In the Tosefta (Avodah Zarah 4:3) the rabbis state unequivocally that “a person should always live in the land of Israel,” adding that it is preferable to live among gentiles in the land of Israel than to live among Jews anywhere else. Moreover, the rabbis insist that one should not only live in Israel, but also die there: “Whoever is buried in the land of Israel is as if he is buried under the altar.” In the Sifrei on Deuteronomy (80), an early midrashic composition dating back to the time of the Mishnah, we find a story of four rabbis who are traveling out of the land of Israel. At some point in their travels, they remember the land of Israel and are overcome by emotion: “They raised their eyes heavenward, letting their tears flow, and rent their garments.” The travelers then quote a verse from Deuteronomy in which Moshe enjoins the Israelites “When you have occupied it and are settled in it, take care to observe all the laws and rules” (Deuteronomy 11:31). Based on this verse’s juxtaposition of settling in the land and observing all the commandments, the source concludes with the assertion that living in the land of Israel is a mitzvah equivalent to all the other commandments in the Torah.
In later Talmudic sources, too, we find several stories about rabbis who were devoted to settling in Israel and passionate about the land. Rabbi Zeyra, a third-century rabbi who forsook his own rabbinic mentor in Babylonia so as to make his home in Israel, had a dramatic Aliyah story that reflects the extent of his commitment (Ketubot 112a). Unlike the members of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who preferred to settle outside the land of Israel, Rabbi Zeyra couldn’t wait to get there. The Talmud relates that he grew tired of waiting for a ferry to cross the Jordan, so he grasped onto a rope and crossed. Another man, who was watching from the sidelines, sneered at him for his impetuousness. But Rabbi Zeyra was not taking any chances, as he informed that onlooker: “The place that Moshe and Aaron did not merit to enter, who is to say that I will be worthy of entering?” He was determined to do all in his power to ensure that unlike Moshe and Aaron, he would merit to make his home in the land.
And yet like the members of the two tribes who wished to stay back, not all the voices in the Talmud are so unequivocal in their support for living in Israel. Rav Yehuda, who was Rabbi Zeyra’s rabbinic mentor in Babylonia, argued that “Anyone who ascends from Babylonia to the land of Israel transgresses a positive mitzvah” (Ketubot 111a), arguing that Jews are supposed to wait until God tells them the time to return has come – an ideology that finds its echo in anti-Zionist Haredi groups of the past century. And in what may be read as a celebration of diasporic dispersal, the midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:3) compares Abraham to a vial of perfume that was sitting in a corner and not emitting any scent, until God told the patriarch to “move around in the world so that your name be great in My world.” In a related passage in tractate Pesachim (87a), Rabbi Elazar argues that God exiled the people of Israel not merely as a punishment, but so people around the world would be exposed to Jews and to their way of life and be inspired to convert. Rabbi Oshaya adds that God performed an act of charity in scattering the Jewish people among the nations, implying that had they all been living in one place, they could have all been destroyed in one fell genocidal swoop.
In the Jewish world today the rift between the Jews of the land of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora seems only to grow wider. But as Moshe ultimately realizes in our parashah, the Israelites—like the Jews of later generations—can champion common causes even if not all living together in the same place. Our world needs both the Jews so passionate about living in Israel that they cannot wait even for the ferry to take them across the Jordan, and the Jews who prefer the vast holdings of the cattle country in Gilad and around the globe. May we learn to appreciate one another’s unique contributions and to find ways of standing together as a people even as we live apart.
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