The journey is nearly complete; the Israelites are now poised to enter the Holy Land. Only one task remains before the Promise can be fulfilled: to dispossess the native people so that the Hebrews can settle there.
Our ancestors stand on the border between nomad and resident, east and west, pledge and realization. They are truly ivrim — “crossers over.”
But they do not all wish to cross. Two tribes, Reuben and Gad, along with the half-tribe of Menasseh, hesitate. They look at the river, crackling golden in morning’s light, then across to the land that flows with milk and honey. Their gaze drops down to their dusty feet. The territory they’ve already conquered — where the nation of Jordan sits now — is enough for them. Their own needs met, they are content to make a life on the eastern shore and let the other tribes do battle.
Moses rejects their plea. “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6).
“No,” they reply. “Guilted and shamed, we will join them if we must. We will leave our families and our flocks behind and only return to them once the war is won.”
This Moses accepts.
Contemporary American culture promotes the concept of rugged individualism — of looking out for number one. But this is not the Jewish way. Judaism values the collective — the am, or “the people” as a whole. Like Moses before us, we believe in shared responsibility. No one rests until all are safe.
When Cain kills his brother, he seeks to hide the murder from an investigating God. “HaShomer Achi Anochi?” Cain famously asks — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
Throughout the rest of Genesis, brothers fight and then reconcile. They protect and care for one another, even after injury and insult. Later in the Torah, we are commanded to love our fellows as we love ourselves, and to provide for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner. We are obligated to show deference to the aged, and to make sure that harm doesn’t befall the blind.
The aged and vulnerable were said to walk in the middle of the pack when the Israelites fled Egypt. They were not allowed to fall behind lest they be attacked. There is no counter example in the Torah.
Later, in the shtetlekh of Europe, kupot — community kitties or tills — were established for the well-being of the poor. (I’ve heard that some synagogues kept such a box in a side room.) Each Jew, coming or going, would enter the room alone. No one would know whether he put money in or took it out.Indeed, we’re told, even the beggar must give tzedakah from his meager haul.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh — each Jew is responsible for one another, the Talmud teaches (Shevuot 39a). Now that we are integrated into mainstream society, we can certainly expand that to include all our neighbors. As Moses signals in this parshah, we value the social contract.
The contemporary iteration of America’s rugged individualism pushes back against the concept of the commons. There’s a strong movement to say no to shared public spaces, like the village green, national parks and art institutions, to shared public facilities like schools, libraries and public media, and to shared public services like healthcare, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), communally supported research, disaster relief and universal internet access. “Each man for himself,” goes the cry. But this is not the Jewish way. We know that a bond exists among all people. We are to care for each other, share the burdens and accept responsibility.
This era of illness and hardship is demonstrating, as never before in my lifetime, that we are profoundly interconnected. What happens to one impacts all others. One person sneezes and another gets sick. Someone wears a mask, and another’s mother stays healthy. We tip well, and the waiter’s family can eat.
HaShomer achi anochi — I am indeed my fellow’s keeper. JN
Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.