Dvar Torah on Parshat Matot

Parashat Hashavua Matot 2017 / 5777 - Kant, Community, and Responsibility: the two-and-a-half tribes

20.07.2017 by

One of the truisms of late twentieth/early twenty-first century society is the notion that a strong sense of community, which was once a major feature of human existence, has essentially broken down. People are now understood to be more individualistic, free to do and think what they like without the fetters of communal responsibility. It doesn’t seem to matter much what society – whatever that might now be – thinks; you should be free to do what you like, live how you like, love who you like, be who you like. An individual is responsible only to his or her wishes and desires. No communal structure, large or small, can make any demands of us other than to obey the law, and if the law seems too onerous, or gets in the way of my self-realization, well, let’s change it.

Now, this may be a good thing, in that we are freer to do what we feel will fulfill us, actualize our potential, allow us to become who we really can and want to be. On the other hand, this loss of shared civic responsibility has perhaps unmoored us from a strong sense of right and wrong, good and bad. Without communal norms and expectations to guide us, who knows if, when faced with challenges and dilemmas, we are making wise or foolish decisions? 

This week, in parshat Matot, we read the story of the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. The Jewish people have conquered a few nations who foolishly and unnecessarily chose to get in their way en route to the land of Israel, and have taken possession of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. We are told that the tribes of Reuven and Gad owned an awful lot of livestock, and, seeing that the area east of the Jordan was good grazing ground, they approach Moshe and ask to be allowed to settle there, rather than continuing on to the actual Promised Land.

Moshe’s response is a model of what would become classical Jewish, Rabbinic thinking. First, he asks a couple of questions: “Will your brothers go into war while you sit here? Why do you want to dissuade the people of Israel from going over into the land which God has given them?”

The first question speaks to issues of solidarity, shared responsibility, and, I think, shame; it would be wrong, and shameful, to sit idly by while your brothers risk their lives in battle. The second question deepens our understanding of shared responsibility: what you do will influence what others do. Your decision to not enter the land and fight will have an effect on the rest of the nation, and dissuade them from entering the land and fighting for it.

And then Moshe makes another typical “rabbinic” statement: he compares what the tribes of Reuven and Gad are doing to an earlier story in the Bible, the sin of the spies. Moshe retells the entire story, which illustrates how the fear the spies felt at the prospect of fighting the Canaanites infected the entire nation, and led them to want to return to Egypt. Similarly, Moshe points out, the request to not enter the land, and simply stay put, will infect the other Israelites, prevent them from getting on with the national project, and, ultimately, destroy them.

Happily, the two tribes are moved by Moshe’s arguments and agree to leave their families and property behind in their east-of-the-Jordan land and join their brothers in the fight for the land of Israel. Only after that is over will they return “home”.

What I find interesting in Moshe’s arguments is his total reliance on the claims of solidarity, communal responsibility and, perhaps most crucially, the idea that, in a society, each member’s actions can have a very real and powerful impact on the rest of the community. As members of a community, we must take those influences into account before acting. Again and again, Moshe emphasizes how the selfish cowardice of these two tribes will infect the rest of the nation, and move them to abandon the national project of establishing an independent state in Israel. He points to the influence the spies had, forty years earlier, with their cowardly lack of faith, in turning the nation away from God’s commandment to take the land and settle it, and describes how the same thing will happen now.

Remarkably, the Torah tells us that, to a small degree, Moshe’s fears were realized. The story begins with just two tribes, Reuven and Gad, approaching Moshe and asking to remain behind in trans-Jordan. By the end of the story, when they have agreed to Moshe’s demand to accompany their brothers into battle, they are joined by half of the tribe of Menashe! Apparently, they were impressed by the deal the two tribes made and wanted a piece of the action as well, and they, too, decided to not settle in the land of Israel.  

In 1785, Immanuel Kant articulated the categorical imperative, which asks of us, when faced with a moral dilemma, to behave in a way that should be accepted as universal law.  Our behavior should be judged by the question: is this the way everyone should behave? Would I want all of mankind to adopt my solution to the particular moral question I am facing? The lesson Moshe is teaching us in his negotiations with the two tribes is a further extension of Kant’s position: the need to judge your behavior by universal standards is not hypothetical; it is real, because, given the fact that man is an intensely social animal, any individual’s behavior may very likely become a universal norm, because people see, and are influenced by, his or her behavior.

Moshe is telling us that, in human society, everyone is watching everyone else. We behave, to a large degree, based on the way others behave. We see as normal and acceptable that which others seem to normally do, and what others accept. This places a very real burden on us all: to behave in ways which, if imitated – and they will be imitated – will be good and right for the general society. The question - what if everyone behaved like me? - is not theoretical. It is the very real outcome of the way that humans figure out how to be human: by watching others being human.

This notion, that we need to adjust our behavior because we are all constantly functioning as role models, is a bit frightening, and places a great amount of responsibility on each one of us. I am sure that most of us, at least some of the time, will probably bridle at the notion that we need to worry about how our actions will impact on those around us. We might think we are free to worry only about our own needs and desires, free of any communal considerations. The Torah explains that, indeed, no man is an island, and what we do will influence and impact upon others. They will see, internalize, and imitate. The Torah demands that we take responsibility for that.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shimon Felix

In a society, each member’s actions can have a very real and powerful impact on the rest of the community.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Matot


Matot begins with laws pertaining to oaths and the need to live up to them, specifically focusing on the ability a father or husband have to nullify a woman's oath. As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, they fight the Midianites, and we are given details about their victory and the laws pertaining to the spoils they took. The parsha ends with the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe making a deal with Moshe that allows them to settle in the land east of the Jordan River, which suits their economic needs, as long as they agree to fight with their brothers to conquer the Land of Israel, west of the Jordan.

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