Retreating from the tenet youre either with us or against us


Numbers 30:2–32:42

Jeremiah 1:1–2:3

It turns out that some of our current challenges — Jewish peoplehood, maintaining Jewish identity and bridging the Jewish communities within and without Israel — are nothing new. Although

it’s been about 2,500 years, this is not very different from what Moses faces in this week’s Torah portion.

We’re nearing the end of the fourth book, Bamidbar (or Numbers), and are about to enter the Land of Israel. Almost 40 years have passed since the Exodus. We encountered wars, temptation and loss. And we received and learned law so we’d know how to live. We built the basics for our nation and were almost ready.

Just then, members of two and a half tribes approach Moses with a request: “[I]f we find favor in your eyes, may this land be given to us … don’t make us pass the [river] Jordan” (Numbers 32:1-5).

Moses is disappointed and upset. He sees the upcoming split, and he’s concerned that in the imminent possible times of war, the tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan won’t come to help — and the people won’t be united in their lives or destiny. He is also concerned that staying outside the land will provide a negative role model.

He compares the two tribes to the spies who came back with an ill report (Numbers 13). He fears that, once again, others will see the example of not going into the land of Israel, especially since one of the tribes is Reuben, the eldest among the brothers.

But the tribes’ representatives approach Moses with a  courageous proposition, saying: “[W]e will build fenced areas for our flock here and cities for our young … but we will march forward before the Children of Israel … we won’t settle until the Children of Israel are settled, each in their own inheritance” (Numbers 32:16-19).

Moses agrees, though in contrast with the order in their request, he asks that they “build unto yourselves cities for your young [first, and then] fenced areas to your flock” (Numbers 32:20-24).

This is one example of the close and complex relationships — and tension — that existed during Torah days between those who chose to live outside of Israel and those who chose to live in it.

Indeed, back then it was also a choice.

Some commentators criticize the two and a half tribes for being selfish and materialistic. Having big herds, they opted for “greener pastures,” shirking their national responsibility and not following the original plan. Some went as far as to say that anyone who lives outside of Israel has no God.

Others say that there is a reason the Jews were dispersed among the nations and that there are advantages to having the Jewish people spread among the nations — if we are to be a “light unto the nations.” Those people claim that the tribes’ request came from a place of care: Having big herds, they knew there wouldn’t be enough space or water for their herds in the land of Israel. Accordingly, they opted to stay outside the land in order to help their brethren.

They also became the eastern front and shield in time of war. Many years later, when the Assyrians came to conquer Israel, those two tribes were the first to be conquered and exiled.

I’m finding that not much has changed.

 The Jews of Israel and the Jews in the diaspora might opt for different lifestyles. Yet we benefit from our different choices when we set our anger aside — and when we actually stop and listen to each other, accommodating each other’s needs, fears, goals and aspirations.

And regardless of where we live — in Israel or in the diaspora — we’re still part of the same family and ultimately share the same destiny.

Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected].