One summer a sh’liakh — a representative — from Israel was visiting a California camp, and talking with the teenagers there. He told them that they were the people Israel wants. “I don’t expect your parents to leave their fine businesses and nice swimming pools and move to Israel. But you should think about coming, about building your future with us.”

In a way he was echoing a story in Sedrah Mattos, Numbers chapter 32. The tribes of Reuben and Gad had big herds of cattle, and found good ranching country in Gilead and Jazer, east of the Jordan. So they ask Moses for permission to stay there and not cross into Canaan.

Moses fairly explodes: “Will your brothers go to war and you sit here?” He reminds them that their parents’ generation made a similar mistake when the spies brought back their negative report, leading to 38 more years in the desert. Now that all Israel is preparing to conquer the Land, he cannot permit any group — certainly not one-sixth of his people — to split off.

The men of Reuben and Gad have a good answer to Moses’ anger. “We will build safe quarters for our families and our cattle here, and we will go over as an advance guard — Halutzim — and bring all the Israelites to their place. We will not return until every man shall have his possession in the Land.” On this condition, Moses agrees to their plan.

So just ten tribes actually divide the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The other two settle on the East Bank.

When the modern Halutzim began to settle in Eretz Yisrael, one faction — Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists — had a song that said “the Jordan has two banks, and both belong to us.” Maybe they were thinking of Reuben and Gad in Gilead. In any case, no land east of the Jordan river came under Jewish control in modern times. And now Israel’s enemies claim sovereignty over the West Bank as well.

But the story of Reuben and Gad has another dimension. Like the campers who responded to the Israeli sh’liakh, many young Diaspora Jews today follow the example of the ancient Halutzim. They volunteer to fight for Israel, whether they plan to live there or not. And what about the rest of us? Will our brothers go through one war after another while we sit here with our fine businesses and our nice swimming pools? Or will we help them, economically and politically if not physically, until they can win an honorable peace?

The men of Reuben and Gad set us a good example. Our people still need us.


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