Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reuven and Gad and Lech Lecha (Matot 5768)

Yesterday, I went to Weis to buy challah. When I got to the checkout, though, the cashier made me what you could call a counteroffer (yes, gratuitous My Cousin Vinny reference): “You want to buy challah? If you’ll pay for meat, I’ll give you the challah you want. But if you won’t pay for meat, I’ll just give you meat.”

Sounds confusing, not to mention illogical - but that’s exactly the deal that Moshe offered to the shevatim of Reuven and Gad.

The members of these shevatim said, “We want to settle outside Israel.” And Moshe replied, “Nothing doing; either you fight for Israel, in which case you can then choose to settle outside Israel, or you can choose not to fight for Israel, but then you’ll have to live in Israel.” In simpler words: Either fight for Israel, or live there without fighting for it.

Why does this deal make any sense at all?

One possible answer goes to the core of the Jewish experience, from its nascence with Avraham and Sarah and onward: The Divine charge of לך לך, to leave the comfortable, to leave the day-to-day, to leave the safe, to travel through a wilderness, to face challenges, to fight wars, in order to acquire a land in which the Jew could develop a new society and bond with HaShem.
This is a journey of trust - trust in HaShem. And this is a journey of spirituality, of המקום אשר יבחר לשכן שמו שם, of a place in which HaShem will dwell and with which HaShem will develop a bond.

Avraham and Sarah are challenged to make this journey of trust and spirituality, from Mesopotamia to Israel.

Yaakov is challenged to make this journey, from Israel to Mesopotamia and then back to Israel.
Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah are challenged to make this journey from their homeland to Israel.

Their great-grandchildren, the former slaves of Egypt, are likewise challenged to make this journey of trust and spirituality, to shed their fears, to overcome privation en route, and to trust in HaShem to bring them to a land Divinely designated from the start to be their home.

That trip met a roadblock at the Eigel, the Golden Calf - because the trust broke down, as the nation, waiting for its leader Moshe to return, panicked.

That trip met another roadblock when the Meraglim returned home with a negative report about Israel, and the nation rejected its spiritual goal as too challenging.

And now, in our parshah, 39 years later, a new generation had taken up the journey and stood at Israel’s boundary. But representatives of two shevatim approached Moshe and said, “This journey is not for us.”

To which Moshe replied that the Jewish nation cannot opt out of the journey of לך לך - this is essential to our identity, as it has been essential to our identity from the beginning.

And so Moshe told the shevatim of Reuven and Gad: If you want to live elsewhere - that’s acceptable. But you must at least make the journey, you must at least demonstrate trust in HaShem and you must feel that spiritual connection through the land.

If you will not live there, you must at least go there. And if you will not agree to at least spend that time there now, then you cannot live outside the land - you will have to live in Israel permanently.

The obligation for Jews to make this לך לך journey persisted after the time of Reuven and Gad in the form of עליה לרגל, the mitzvah of traveling to Yerushalayim and the Beit haMikdash for each Yom Tov. As Rav Menachem Genack wrote in his book גן שושנים, this mitzvah is a basic re-enactment of that original journey embarked upon by Avraham and Sarah.

A quirk in the laws governing this mitzvah proves Rabbi Genack’s point: The gemara rules that a Jew is obligated in this mitzvah of aliyah laregel only if he owns land.

This is an odd requirement - what does land ownership have to do with the mitzvah? Rabbi Genack explains that the point of our thrice-annual journey to Yerushalayim is to re-enact the faithful trip of Avraham and Sarah, to abandon our land in order to travel to Yerushalayim, to the site of the Beit haMikdash.

In the time of the Beit haMikdash, every Jew who owns land is expected to turn his back on it and fulfill לך לך.

Today, when we lack a Beit haMikdash and when the majority of Jews do not yet live in Israel, most halachic authorities rule that we cannot fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah laregel. Nonetheless, the לך לך imperative endures, binding all of us to display, on a practical level, our trust in Gd, to make a practical attempt to achieve the spiritual benefit of living in Israel. Like Reuven and Gad, some Jews will opt to live outside of Israel, as some Jews have always done - but לך לך is still our charge.

What, exactly, is expected of today’s Jew? What, exactly, is the definition of this לך לך command?
We do a number of good things which are not לך לך. We say Tehillim. We fast on Shivah asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b'Av, and mourn through the three weeks of בין המצרים. We send sizeable checks to Israel. These are wonderful things, all important, all significant mitzvot. But when we look at Reuven and Gad we realize that these are not לך לך.

Reuven and Gad go to Israel and exhaust and endanger themselves for the sake of settling Jews in the land - just as Avraham and Sarah did, just as Yaakov did, just as Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah did, just as Reuven and Gad and the rest of the nation did. That is לך לך.

A Jew can be very religious, a Jew can believe in the Torah and believe that Israel is ours and daven ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים three times a day and learn mishnayos and say Tehillim, and read Arutz Sheva on-line until his eyeballs fall out - but with all of that wonderful merit, this is still not לך לך. לך לך is about entering the land - even just four amot, as the gemara prescribes - but it’s about going into the land.

I’m going on the Federation mission to Israel this November. I’m glad to say that more than 100 people are going with me, and there is even a waiting list.

Certainly, a mission to Israel is an all-too-brief stint, but Jews who go on such trips are fulfilling our original responsibility of לך לך, they are showing that original trust in Gd, and they are showing that original recognition of Israel as a land pledged to us by HaShem as a special place.

Of course, not everyone can go on a Mission - these are expensive trips, and they come with a very specific schedule and design. But personal trips are a possibility. Many people here do it, even staying in Israel for months at a time. ________, _________ and __________ will be there this coming year, studying. No matter what time of year you go to Israel, you’re guaranteed to find an Allentonian in Israel. We can do this.

If Avraham and Sarah can travel from Mesopotamia, if דור המדבר can spend forty years in the wilderness, if Reuven and Gad can fight wars, then many of us can save up funds by skipping and stinting for a few years in order to make that לך לך trip.

Believing in the holiness of Israel is important, of course, but it is nothing compared to going there. Like Reuven and Gad, we can choose to pay for the meat and use it, or we can choose the counteroffer, paying for the meat and taking home the challah. But we must always pay; our mission today is, and always has been, לך לך.

Sefer HaKuzari presents a religious dialogue between a non-Jewish king and a Jewish philosopher. At the end of the dialogue, the Jewish philosopher expresses his desire to travel to Israel. The king asks him, “Since you believe in the value of the land, and Gd knows what is in your heart, and Gd really cares about what is in your heart, why do you need to act on your beliefs at all, and travel there?”

To which the Jewish philosopher replied with immortal words: האדם מונח לו בינו בין מאוויו ומעשהו, והאדם נאשם כאשר איננו מביא השכר הנראה אל המעשה הטוב הנראה - A person is situated between his desire and his action, and a person is guilty if he does not convert his desire into action.

We already have the desire; what remains is for us to convert it into action.

1. Yes, another speech about aliyah and Israel. Way I figure, maybe people will be motivated to go just to get away from all of these speeches about it...

2. Rav Ben Zion Firer (מדי שבת בשבתו) asks the same question about the illogic of Moshe's offer, but gives a different answer, about the importance of national unity.

3. Rabbi Genack's article is in his Gan Shoshanim, #55.

4. The gemara's limitation of aliyah laregel to those who own land is in Pesachim 8b. There is some controversy regarding the fact that the Rambam omits this in his discussion of the mitzvah.

5. Tosafot Pesachim 3b מאליה, in his third answer for why R' Yehudah ben Beteirah did not go to the Beit haMikdash for aliyah l'regel as well as the korban pesach, suggests that someone who lives outside of Israel is not required to do so. Many commentators struggle to explain this comment.

6. On the status of the mitzvah aliyah l'regel today, see the Ran ואיכא to Taanit 10a (2a בדפי הריף), Tashbetz 3:201, and She'eilat Yaavetz 1:127.

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  1. my Upstate NY community that i was a part of during college, like other small Jewish communities, has a very high attrition rate. a lot of the people there make aliyá, and always talk about meeting up with fellow [Upstate] people in Israel. I think eventually there'll be enough of them there to start their own little yishuv and call it [Upstate Town] Hahhadasha.

  2. Yes, we have, thank Gd, quite a few Allentonian olim. Added one more a couple of months ago on one NBN trip, adding another family in August on the NBN trip then.

    I think that smaller communities engender less of an attitude of "permanence" than you see in the LI/Queens/Brooklyn/NYC/Bergen County Jewish communities.