Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), a German-born Swiss author, once remarked: "Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin."
Hesse’s universal vision of human enlightenment requires us to transcend our worldly boundaries. Ironically, religion is sometimes responsible for the very divisions that hinder transcendence into a spiritual realm.
As we read this week in Parashat Matot, Moses divides up the community according to tribes, assigning land and leadership roles accordingly as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The Torah provides two names for the twelve tribes of Israel, both derived from the imagery of the tree: shevatim and matot. While a shevet is a "branch," a mateh is a "staff"—the former attached to the tree, the other detached. In other words, a mateh is a shevet that has been uprooted from its tree.
The twelve tribes embody this tension between unity and division. Eager to settle in plots east of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, later joined by half of the tribe of Manasseh, demand these plots as their portion in the Promised Land. Moses, initially angered by this special request, subsequently agrees—on the condition that they join and lead Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.
Today, we continue to face this tension in our modern Jewish tribe. We struggle between mateh and shevet Judaism, between denominationalism and unity, and between Conservative Judaism and "Just Jewish."
Both of these perennial tendencies of creating and grouping community are part of the Tree of Jewish communal Life; the question is how we strike a balance between our need for ideological affinity within a given denomination and the need to be a part of a unified peoplehood.
William Henry Ashley (1778-1838), an American congressman and fur trader, once described the pace of his trapping expeditions: "As my men could profitably employ themselves on these streams, I moved slowly along, averaging not more than five or six miles per day and sometimes remained two days at the same encampment."
If the pace of Ashley’s journey seems slow, consider that of the Israelites. Along the way to the Promised Land—from the Exodus to the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan — the Israelites record forty-two station stops in encampments. As we approached our destination, the boundaries of the Promised Land were traced, and more importantly, Cities of Refuge were designated as havens, places of exile for inadvertent murderers. (How telling that the Cities of Refuge, which are an advanced institution dedicated to creating civil society and thus protecting it from the circle of bloodshed that comes with revenge, are referred to time after time in Scripture – here in Numbers as well as in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.)
In the final surveying of laws relating to the land, we confronted the issue of inheritance head-on. The daughters of Tzelafochad — as proto-feminists — decide to marry within their own tribe of Manasseh to ensure that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.
Throughout the parsha, the land ultimately serves as a horizontal platform for action, one that always binds us in a vertical relationship to what is right, just, and compassionate – the divine. Just as we journey across lands here on earth, we must not forget the journey of the soul.
Although journeys on land may be long and treacherous, there is no greater journey than the turn inwards. Each Shabbat, we are offered this chance to slow down and share in this ongoing spiritual journey with our community.
- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week's artwork is concerned with "worldly boundaries," the lines we etch into or lay over the landscape to demarcate property and/or spheres of influence. "When you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders." (Numbers 34:2) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.