Shabbat Mattot & Massei: Where should you live?

July 13, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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As the children of Israel approach the land of Israel, they had to pass through what is now Transjordan. The domains of Sihon the Emorite and Og of Bashan.

In those days, it was fertile grassland rather like the Wild West. As The Israelites moved up through these territories, they were forced to fight Sihon and Og. They defeated them and conquered their lands. The tribes of Reuven, Gad, and part of Menashe had built up large flocks and herds of grazing animals. We don’t know if they already had flocks and herds in Egypt before leaving or acquired them during the 40 years of wandering. But they saw that this was ideal land for them, in contrast to the hilly areas on the West Bank.

They approached Moshe with a request that they should be able to take over this land instead of having a share in the hilly country to the West ( Numbers 32). Moshe’s initial reaction was shock and anger. He saw it as a rebellion against the Divine Plan. It looked as though they were breaking the solidarity of the 12 tribes. He accused them of taking advantage of what the tribes altogether had done as one unit in conquering Sihon and Og and they were leaving the rest of the people to fight for themselves on the other side. Moshe felt this would undermine unity and strength by breaking away from everyone else. And indeed, the text records that this was God’s reaction too when Moshe went to consult.

Nevertheless, they persisted and stressed their loyalty to everyone together. They argued that they would build cattle pens for the herds on the East bank, settle their families there, and then come over armed to fight for the rest of the tribes to secure their land too. As a result of the strength of their views and determination, Moshe surprisingly conceded. In so doing he came up with an oath they had to agree to. It was an oath of double condition. All biblical agreements had to be double-edged. If you do this, then this will be the consequence, but if you do that, that will be the other consequence. Moshe agreed that if they were given the land they had to come over and fight for the others. And if they did not, the agreement would lapse, and the other tribes would reclaim the land.

But there was another aspect to this incident. The historical question was whether over time by staying on the East Bank they would assimilate and disappear.

The Torah goes on to talk about the Cities of Refuge, the Arei Miklat. Which does not appear to have any connection. They were essential to the judicial process in Israel. The Bible’s alternative to our penal systems was to designate functioning cities run by the priesthood, which were also places where criminals or suspected criminals or somebody who accidentally had killed somebody else, could flee to escape being killed in vengeance.  The rabbis stressed this was not to be understood as sanctioning reprisal, but rather responsibility to see that justice was done.

In these cities, they could live with their families in a normal setting while their cases were being adjudicated and this was where they could stay protected until the death of the high priest or the political leader. They would be not in a prison but living normally with their families and making the best of their life in this new town.

The Torah specified six cities of refuge, three on the West Bank and three on the East Bank, which is strange because if there were ten tribes on the West Bank, more people were likely to be criminals. Whereas only two and a half tribes were on the East bank with the same number of cities of refuge. So, by implication, there must have been more criminals proportionately in the East. The obvious explanation is that the East Bank was less law-abiding than the West Bank, which was a society ruled more strictly by the laws of the Torah. These would be engraved on stones for all to see when they crossed over to the West. The fewer East Bank tribes were more widely spread, less cohesive, more distanced from each other, with less pressure from society and the law, and therefore more likely to get up to monkey business.

The two-and-a-half East Bank Israelites disappeared much more quickly than the other tribes. The Jews on the West Bank with their heads in Jerusalem under the tribe of Judah survived, and we are descended from them. The moral of the story is reiterated by the rabbis who say one should always live somewhere where you’re surrounded by good people by people who are going to influence you positively. This is going to have an impact on who you are and what your children will be.

Moshe was right to worry. But he conceded out of an attempt at conciliation and compromise. You can’t always force people to make the right decision. The moral is that it is important to choose a society and or friends that share your values. How important is this today in the debate (or rather the fight) about what kind of society Israel or indeed Australia, New Zealand, the USA the UK should be?

Numbers 30-36:13

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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