Matot-Masei and Meeting our Mutual Needs

Matot-Masei reminds us that the tensions between the part and the whole may be real, but even so, they need not result in a zero-sum game. Our Jewish tradition pushes us towards balance and mutuality, valuing both our own needs (land for our cattle!) and ALSO the needs of the collective society. As this Torah story illustrates, perhaps everyone can get what they need if we think expansively, and care about both specific and collective needs. This is Torah that our nation needs to be reminded of, in this fraught moment.

In this week's double parasha, Matot-Masei, a near-crisis emerges for the Israelites. At this point, they have been journeying together through the wilderness for many years already, and are beginning to think about the challenges they'll face when they cross the Jordan River into the promised land of Canaan. They anticipate a tough conquest, a military battle against the inhabitants of the land that will take all the strength they can muster. However, two of the twelve tribes -- the descendants of Reuven and Gad -- have decided that they want to stay and settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan where it seems that the land is good for their cattle, rather than crossing over to the other side with the other ten tribes. If you click here to read Numbers chapter 32 in its entirety, you'll see that the text is rife with tension; Moses fears that the Reuvenites and Gadites are shirking their responsibility to the greater good of the nation.

The tension resolves as a new social contract is made explicit. The tribes of Reuven and Gad agree to send warriors to help the other ten tribes when the time comes, and in exchange, they are apportioned the land they want on the eastern side of the river. It's a satisfying ending, in that the specific needs of the sub-group are honored, and the collective identity of the whole is also preserved.

This sort of tension -- between the needs of sub-groups and whole groups, or between individuals and the collective -- is at play all the time. Right now we are living through the most dramatic and awful example of this that I can recall in my lifetime. Over recent weeks, we have all witnessed how the United States -- in contrast to most of the other countries on this planet -- has failed to curb the spread of a virus, resulting in nearly 140,000 Covid deaths in the U.S. to date. There are many complicated factors in play, of course, but undeniably, one significant factor is our country's fetishizing of individual rights. When people refuse to wear masks or to refrain from hosting large parties because they believe that this infringes on their personal freedom, this "individualism on steroids" becomes a threat to the health of the whole group.

Matot-Masei reminds us that the tensions between the part and the whole may be real, but even so, they need not result in a zero-sum game. Our Jewish tradition pushes us towards balance and mutuality, valuing both our own needs (land for our cattle!) and ALSO the needs of the collective society. As this Torah story illustrates, perhaps everyone can get what they need if we think expansively, and care about both specific and collective needs. This is Torah that our nation needs to be reminded of, in this fraught moment.

The notion of mutuality, and the accompanying give-and-take, is also central to any social contract. I've mentioned before I have been participating, this year, in a Black-Jewish Clergy group that's been very meaningful to me. Over the last few months, the rabbis of the group have worked to show up as allies to our black colleagues in the Black Lives Matter movement here in Seattle (and the broader continued struggle for civil rights and true equality). This past week, in response to the anti-semitic remarks by NFL player DeSean Jackson, the pastors drafted this strong statement in support of the Jewish community. As one of my black colleagues expressed, it was important to them to illustrate that the "beloved community" our group aspires to build is based on mutuality; as such, the pastors were glad to be able to show up as allies in some tangible way to their Jewish friends too. Authentic relationships feature support as a two-way street.

Finally, it probably goes without saying that at Kavana -- where we've always talked about "personalized Judaism in a community context" -- the needs of both individuals and the collective matter deeply, and we understand them to be inextricably linked with one another! As such, Kavana is pleased to be working in partnership with Jewish Family Service to better understand our community's specific needs as we navigate these turbulent times. We have worked together with JFS to develop a short survey. All responses will be kept anonymous and no personal data will be recorded; however, Kavana does have a unique survey link so that we'll be able to access the data from members of our community in the aggregate. Please click here to complete the JFS Covid-19 Community Needs survey. By taking a few moments to respond, you will help us understand how to better meet your individual needs, and the needs of our community as a whole.

In hopes that together we can build a caring society, based on mutuality and respect for both the individual and the community.

Warmly,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum