Between the Lines—Mattot

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Numbers Rabbah 22:9

ד״א ומקנה רב זש״ה (קהלת י) לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו לב חכם לימינו זה יצר טוב שהוא נתון בימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו זה יצה״ר שנתון בשמאלו

ד״א לב חכם לימינו אלו הם הצדיקים שהן נותנין לבם לתורה שהיא מימין שנא׳ (דברים לג) מימינו אש דת למו ולב כסיל לשמאלו אלו הן הרשעים שהן נותנין לבם להעשיר שנא׳ (משלי ג) במשאלה עושר וכבוד


Another explanation of "[The Reubenites and the Gadites] owned cattle in very great numbers . . . " (Num. 32:1). This relates to another verse: "A wise man's mind tends toward the right hand, but a fool's toward the left" (Eccles. 10:2). "A wise man's mind tends toward the right hand"—this [describes] the good inclination, which is set on one's right side; "a fool's toward his left"—this [describes] the evil inclination, which is set on one's left side.

Another explanation [of Eccles. 10:2]—"A wise man's mind tends toward the right hand" refers to the righteous who apply their minds to the Torah, for this [intellect] is on the right, as it says," ["The Lord came from Sinai] . . . from His right flashed a fiery law unto them" (Deut. 33:2). "A fool's toward his left" refers to the wicked, who set their minds on getting rich, as it says, "[In her right hand is length of days,] in her left are riches and honor" (Prov. 3:16).

If you are reading this commentary in North America, beware: the midrash above is a warning directed at you. That perspective, at least, is one long-held rabbinic reading of the initial conflict involving the request from the Reubenites and Gadites to settle in territory outside the Promised Land. Even though Moses and the tribes amicably resolve this issue, the interpretations above treat the outlying Israelites as traitors. On the figurative "right side" of God's plan, Moses, in the language of Ecclesiastes, is the "wise man" focused on righteousness and Torah, while the tribes are rogue "fools" who sinisterly pursue "riches and honor" rather than the common good of Israel. While we must similarly distinguish right from wrong, a derisive kind of right-versus-left rhetoric has emerged recently regarding ideological differences between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora that should trouble all of us.

In the past several months, new debates have arisen regarding the Zionism of my generation in general and my non-Orthodox rabbinic peers in particular. As my colleague Dr. Alex Sinclair wrote last month in the Jerusalem Post, many of these critiques "are, at their core, classic Zionist 'negation of the Diaspora' positions: Israel is the center of the Jewish world; Israelis know best about Israel's problems; Diaspora Jews should support Israel come what may, and refrain from criticizing Israel in public, and be very cautious about doing so even in private." Sinclair further argues that such opinions are counterproductive to those seeking future support for Israel from North American Jews; instead, he advocates for educational initiatives like the one he directs for The Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem (Kesher Hadash Semester-in-Israel program, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education) that are aimed at building mutual understanding and cooperation between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

In fact, that vision and its implementation literally conclude this week's Torah portion. After Moses secures a guarantee from the tribes of Reuben and Gad to take part in conquering the Promised Land, he tells them that upon return from Canaan "you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under the Lord" (Num. 32:22). Hearing more of that kind of message, one of affirmation rather than of scorn, surely could inspire me to reinvest in my Zionist commitments.