Shabbat Shalom-With a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Matot
We are coming close to the culmination of the Torah storyline. We are nearing the River Jordan, Moses is preparing for his farewell address (Deuteronomy), and the people are making plans for establishing life in the “Promised Land.” They have wandered for forty years, watching a generation wane and another mature, weathering waves of war, and experiencing miraculous redemptions.
Each tribe prepares to move into the land given them by edict of God, and Moses readies himself to say “Good bye” to his people. In the midst of all this preparation for “settling in,” a couple of tribes approach Moses to tell him that they have no interest in crossing the river. They reject the land given them in “the land,” and want to settle in where they were and go no further. Moses’ response was vehement and angry. He condemned the tribes for abandoning their brothers and for their cowardice in not wanting to help establish the land given them by God.
Ultimately the tribes agreed to aid the other tribes in establishing homes in the land, after building their own where they were. Moses is eventually mollified, but we cannot help but realize that the decision by these tribes creates trust issues that threaten the integrity of the family fabric.
The text does not tell us how the rest of Israel reacted, but we have to struggle with Moses’ response. He did not ask for their motivation. His first response was anger. Why was his first response so angry?
Some will argue that he was frustrated. After all of the trials and tribulations of the journey, these tribes did not want the prize. Was he upset because they were rejecting the land that is denied to him? He wants to enter the land and cannot, and these people are not even interested … despite being gifted guaranteed access?
Is he upset because he has put his entire life on the line to keep this family together, and now, as his life is waning, he sees that his effort was wasted and meaningless? Perhaps he is really frustrated with himself. This challenge is just one too many, and he realizes that it really is time to let go; he just does not have the strength for this one more challenge. He does elicit a promise from the tribes to aid in the cause of settling the other tribes. He does formally relinquish leadership to Joshua. He does prepare his final sermon. His story raps up.
We, though, are left with all sorts of questions about what to do with a story that teaches that Moses’ final responses are painful, confrontational, and prejudicial. I feel for him. Leadership can be frustrating.
A leader can give heart and soul and not be appreciated. A leader can give heart and soul and, at the same time be so invested in what he has to offer, that he lacks perspective for other people’s points of view. A leader can give heart and soul, and be so invested that he forgets that others are not as invested in the cause as is he. We all have differing priorities, and the stuff that is sacred to one is not even on the radar of another.
This is not a statement of one’s value, for each of us faces unique challenges and celebrates life in unique and intimate ways. It is for this very reason that I am committed to faith, and not to a demonstration of faith. I tell people that the sanctuary is only one room where sacred work is done in a house of worship, and the house of worship is only one place where sacred work is experienced. Even as to my own faith tradition, the sages are explicit in teaching that anyone who believes to have a literal understanding of scripture’s demands has blasphemed.
Moving to a new community provides a great opportunity for renewal and restoration … and for gut checks. Even while we are who we are, we encounter new situations wherein people who have no experience with us, do not always know what to do with our idiosyncrasies, familiar behaviors, points of view, humor, mood shifts … and the list goes on. In short, there is no experience on which to base trust. We walk through new worlds with life skills, points of view and expectations rooted in a context in which no one around us shared. We walk through their worlds without any context for how they became who they are.
Moses had forty years with folks and still experienced a huge disconnect in his relationship with the people. Our every day news is filled with myriads of stories that call us to question the norms in which we have always trusted. Certainly, some of these norms need to be rethought, for we take too much for granted.
We need to be jolted sometimes. More often, though, our skepticism creates interpersonal problems that might otherwise have never occurred. Where our first thoughts create skepticism as to each other’s integrity, we set in motion a chain of reaction of responses that can only end in conflict. Even where we have cause to be skeptical, meaningful and compassionate conversation goes a long way towards helping each other grow in understanding, and creates ground rules for productive relationships.
What I believe in my heart is that where good people give each other the opportunity to experience each other’s dignity, the world gets to celebrate greater light. Further, I believe that our world views continue to evolve, and we really should not take for granted that we really understand what makes each other tick. In each engagement, we should strive to listen to each other more, judge less, and commit ourselves to a greater sense of appreciation of the ways in which we can add blessing to each other’s lives.
Yes, eventually the tribes in question came to the aid of their brothers who crossed the river, but perhaps their angst and humiliation that took place was ultimately not necessary. I think Torah is clear that we owe each other more.