There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)
At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?
Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.
On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.
Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.
The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:
…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.
People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?
Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.
Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.
A second understanding of the Torah story this week is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.
Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,
It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.
Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.
That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.
True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.
These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.
How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.
In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.
We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.
I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.
It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.
What was my prayer?
Please, God, let us
End the violence
Be kept from hatred and scorn
Stop creating false divisions
Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise
See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy
Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.
There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.