The tribes that didn’t want to cross the river


This week’s Torah portion is Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2-36:13.

As the Israelites stand on the banks of the Jordan, the leaders of two tribes — Reuven and Gad — come to Moses and ask to remain on the far side and not cross over into the land of Israel.

Moses is incensed, and blisteringly reminds them that it was this very sort of hanging back from the land that initially condemned the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the entire generation had died out.

Moses accuses Gad and Reuven of refusing to stand by their fellow Israelites in the battle to come, and that their wanting to remain behind will also dissuade their fellow Israelites from wanting to cross over.

One might think that this has little to do with the short introduction to this week’s Torah portion, in which Moses instructs the Israelites about what happens to a woman who takes a vow: If she lives in her father’s house, but is old enough to marry, or if she is already married, then the law is that as soon as her father or husband hear of the vow, they have the power to annul it; but if they wait a day, they no longer have the power to annul her vow.

The verse (Numbers 30:12) uses the word “hecherish,” which the Talmud understands to mean “was silent,” and generates from this the principle “silence is like assent.”

There’s an obvious connection to the episode of Gad and Reuven. Moses was obligated to speak up immediately to rebuke them for their hanging back. But there’s another connection: Both the law of vows and the rebuke of Moses remind us of the obligations we have to one another.

When Reuven and Gad seemingly refuse to stand with the rest of Israel, it’s not simply that Moses suspects them of cowardice. He believes that they have separated themselves from the community, and by refusing their share in the land they are declaring both that they have no interest in sharing the hardships or rewards. And although we may now understand that the idea that a woman can be overridden by her husband or father’s will is appalling, the idea that people have a duty to one another that can override personal inclinations is not.

We live in a society so thoroughly divided that we cannot even agree on facts much of the time. But as this portion comes to remind us, we rise — or fall — together. That’s not a choice. We must understand that like Moses, and like the beloved family member, we have an obligation to act at times of urgency, to correct bad behavior through rebuke, to undo things that ought not to be done — and yes, that sometimes we even have to override others’ desires, especially if an ethical value is being undermined and people are being harmed.

But the discussion of vows at the beginning offers another warning, as well: Our time to fix harms are limited. If we don’t speak up immediately, as soon as we know about it, our power to fix the problem may disappear, and we are assenting to whatever is happening.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is co-chair of the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign.

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