Letting your children live their own lives can mean compromise


Numbers 30:2-36:13

Jeremiah 2:4-28 and 3:4

It seems that the grass really did look greener on the other side. In this week’s Torah portion, as the Jewish people look toward crossing the Jordan River and heading west into Israel, the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe   and ask to remain right where they are: on the other side of the Jordan with excellent grazing land for their flocks.

Moshe was none too happy about this one: “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dissuade the heart of the Children of Israel from crossing to the land that HaShem has given you? This is what your fathers did [in the catastrophic incident with the spies] … The wrath of HaShem burned that day … You will destroy this entire people” (32:6-15).

Wow, saying “no” doesn’t get a whole lot heavier than that.

In a counteroffer, the two tribes suggest that they are indeed willing to go in to fight before returning to settle this grazing land across the river. Without further argument, Moshe agrees; all will fight and then Reuven, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe will inherit the east bank of the Jordan.

Hold on a minute here. Why does Moshe go from staunch opposition to sudden flexibility and willingness to let the plan go through?

From his first response, one would think that he would never give in and agree! Secondly, they only addressed Moshe’s concern about the war. What about his other concerns? Finally, how did half of Menashe get mixed into this? Their name never appears in the discussion, so why are they put on the other side, and why only half of them?

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us a lesson about dealing with children who leave the path that their parents set before them. The tribes strayed from their “family’s values,” choosing green grass over responsibility and Zionism. Moshe’s first response is perhaps the most common one, as he hits them with threat and guilt. “How could you abandon your brothers to war alone? You are going to do what the spies did!”

But this does not help, and the tribes come back to say, “We heard what you said, and we still are focused on staying here. Can this work?” At that point Moshe realizes the depth of the divide between his perspective and that of these people, and shifts gears. He moves in the direction of trying to preserve what he can while laying the groundwork for future connection and embrace of ideals.

He is not agreeing with them or condoning their act, but trying to figure out the best way to protect and build their connection and commitment. So he forgets the piece about the spies and focuses on what will help them to keep a Jewish and Israel-oriented “lifeline” in their lives. What will do that? Their willingness to enter the land to fight opens up a window for them to come and at least see the land, not to mention being there for a little while. Who knows? They might just make some sort of connection.

Then beyond that, it is Moshe who sends half of Menashe across for the ride. It has been suggested that Moshe did this because it was a small tribe, and sending half of them across the Jordan would ensure that there would be trans-Jordanian communication. If half a family is here and half are there, there will be a connection.

Moshe may have been trying to keep the tribes on the other side from totally assimilating and losing touch with the rest of the Jewish people. He recognized that they couldn’t be forced there, but if enticed they might seek greater contact when ready. His plan of first exposing them to the beauty in Jewish life and then keeping the channels open for greater connection is worthy of study.

It is the increasingly rare and fortunate parent who can say that their adult children have embraced their values. But in a society that prizes personal autonomy, it is difficult and often unwise to push too hard. The narrative here suggests that we might do better to help them see some of the beauty in what they are missing, and then leave the door open and the communication warm. With guidance from Moshe and some help from HaShem, it just might bring us all a bit closer.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].