You’d think, haverim, being "between jobs" as I prepare for my move from the DC area to the beautiful upper Pioneer valley of Massachusetts, I’d actually have some time to sit down and muse anew on this parasha. Alas, no rest for the weary, as there is simply so much to do in preparation for the move. So, as the title of this recycled musing suggests, I’m going to punt. If it was good enough for Moshe, it’s good enough for me!
Random Musing Before Shabbat – Matot 5765
Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
(or Making Lemonade)
Big man, this Moses. Been leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom for almost 40 years. Starting to get a little cocky and full of himself, too. Doesn’t seem like he’s always running off to consult with G"d before making important pronouncements.
Yet often life’s realities dictate and guide our choices. As the saying goes, when stuck with a lemon, make lemonade. What else could Moshe Rabbeinu do when confronted with the cattle and sheep barons of the Reubenites, the Gadites when they requested to settle in the good pasture land east of the Jordan?
Oh, Moses makes a show of it, insisting that the Reubenites and Gadites agree to provide the warriors necessary so that the rest of the tribes can conquer and settle the lands G"d is going to deliver to them on the west side of the Jordan. Yet Moshe never says "no, this you must not do." It’s as if he had already thought through the potential outcomes of challenging this desire on the part of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and just wanted to be sure the deal he was about to make wouldn’t cost him (or perhaps Joshua) the warriors that would be needed to secure their possession of the promised lands.
The risks must have been high. Yet Moshe doesn’t stop to ask G"d what to do. Moshe, to put it bluntly, punts. He takes the bull by the horns (sort of an odd phrase to use, when thought of in context of the golden calf.) He assesses the situation. He assesses his own weakening strength. And maybe, just maybe, he figures, "what the heck. I’m not going to get to cross the Jordan, so why shouldn’t I let these two tribes stay on this side as well?"
So he makes sure to extract the promises he needs from them, and grants the wishes of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The other day, at a Torah study session, I asked the person who was reading the text out loud, when he got to verse 33, to repeat the first words. I asked him to re-read them several time. "Vayitein lahem Moshe livnei Gad u’livnei Reuven…" "So Moses assigned them, the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven…"
So it is through the decision of Moshe that the Reubenites and Gadites are assigned territory on the east side of the Jordan. I guess we can assume G"d’s acquiescence/deference to Moshe’s decision through G"d’s silence on the matter. (Or, if we want to don our scholarly hats, we can just chalk the whole story up to an etiological device meant to explain, at a later time, how certain tribes came to occupy certain lands.)
Now, as I typically do, I’m being a little hard on Moshe. In reality, I respect his ability to punt. It takes the ability to really stay focused on some long-term goal to be able to make compromises for the near-term. Is it more important that all the children of Israel occupy land on the west side of the Jordan, or that there be civility and peace between the tribes of Israel. (And, also taking the long-term view, as the sages have taught, the tribes of Reuben and Gad got their comeuppance when theirs were among the first territories to fall to the invaders from the north. Was Moshe, man of faith, certain that G"d would make sure the tribes of Reuben and Gad were suitably punished for their choice?)
How many times have we failed to make lemonade of lemons, or failed to punt when we should have, from tunnel vision, an inability to see the forest for the trees? I think Judaism has a long history of this, and it is becoming an increasing problem in our own time. Stretch a rubber band from a center point and it will only stretch so far before it breaks. Yet, if you don’t insist that the center point remain absolutely fixed, you can keep the rubber band from breaking. Move the center a little, and relieve the stress on the rubber band.Though we now find Judaism mired in either on a stubborn insistence that the center must never move, or a foolish "just move the center whenever it’s convenient" attitude, the reality is that the early rabbis established a wise system that allowed for punting when needed. That allowed the center to be adjusted when it was clear the only alternative was to let the rubber band snap. Wise poskim in our own time still follow this venerable method.
Just to go off on a tangent for moment, let’s ask ourselves this question. In the rubber band/center point metaphor, is G"d the fixed point and the people those stretching out the rubber band? Or are we, Am Yisrael, the center point, with G"d always tugging at the rubber band trying to drag us along as we stubbornly try to keep the center in one fixed place? Or are Am Yisrael tugging at the rubber band, while Torah is the center point, which G"d cleverly designed to move when necessary? There, that ought to keep us all occupied for a while.
So think about those times in your life when your intransigence prevented you from making trying a game-winning punt. And then think about what you are going to do next time you are confronted with a similar opportunity.
©2005, 2008 by Adrian A. Durlester