Parshat Mattot-Masei
July 14, 2018 | 2 Av 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

While most of us here are just a little too old to remember the specifics of any negotiations we had with our children while they were quite young, ALL of us can remember having had such conversations with them.

Right? Is there anyone here who didn’t have such negotiations with a child at least once?

I don’t believe you.

I think you have “conveniently” forgotten about such things… but you go right on believing that fantasy…

For the rest of us – though none of us can recall details, let me share with you my imagined reconstruction of such a negotiation in our family.

“Josh (that’s who it would have been in our family), your room is really a mess. Please clean it up before the Schwartz family arrives.”

“OK, I will.”

“No, Josh! Now! They’ll be here soon.”

The whining begins – “But I’m tired.” (That is a direct quote that I do remember from 25 years ago.)

“Josh!”

“But I’m tired.”

The negotiation would continue for a short time … and I would finally give up…sort of.

“OK, Josh – clean your room now, and I promise we’ll go out this evening for ice cream.”

Negotiation over; mission accomplished … and Josh, of course, was the victor.

But I also won, didn’t I? Just a little?

Did I correctly capture the dynamics of negotiation in your household when your children were young?

Again, say anything you like. But 30, 40, 50 or more years is a long time…a long time to remember such things.

So, say anything you like, but the answer to my question is – Yes, that’s pretty much the way it worked in your family too.

We were firm with our children … but within reason, they usually got what they wanted.

Friends – I have just described the essence of a story we read in Parshat Mattot this morning.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad made a terribly unreasonable request of Moses, but in the end, after some negotiation, the “kids” got what they wanted.

Nonetheless, though it may seem that the “parent” Moses lost the negotiation, he did succeed in getting the two tribes to act in a way that continues to share some important things for us to consider today.

As the final two parshiyot of Bemidbar open and the narrative of the Israelites’ desert wanderings is about to end, the people stand ready to enter the Promised Land …

But two tribes didn’t want to move forward.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad had lots of cattle, and the land east of the Jordan River, outside Cana’an, was fertile.

So they asked Moses for permission to stay there; they asked Moses to excuse them from entering the Promised Land!

Wow! The chutzpah!

After all that God had done for them; after all that Moses had done for them …they wanted to stop and stay right there on the other side of the Jordan River!

The Torah doesn’t describe the smoke that must have come out of Moses’ ears at that moment.

Instead, it depicts a calm Moses, a measured Moses, who appeals to reason.

Your absence, Moses tells the Reubenites and Gadites, will not just potentially harm the chances of the other Israelite tribes successfully entering the Land of Israel; it will totally deflate them.

No need for me to go into all the details of the negotiation; we read them earlier this morning.

In case you missed the Torah reading, this story has a happy ending.

Eventually, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, joined by the half-tribe of Menashe, get to stay outside the Land of Israel … and they all lived happily ever after.

(Not really; I just needed to bring the story to an end.)

So the tribes got what they wanted … and Moses largely got what he wanted too.

It became a situation that the Rabbis might have referred to as –

“Zeh ne’hene ……v’zeh ne’hene” – This one enjoyed and that one enjoyed.

In other words, both parties got most of what they wanted.

Moses got these tribes to promise they would enter the Land of Israel and help the rest of the Israelites settle there.

And these two and a half tribes eventually got to stay on the land they preferred just outside the Land of Israel.

Yes, it worked because they were able to compromise.

But it is the nature of the compromise – what Moses sought to emphasize to these tribes – that provides the lasting lesson.

25 years ago when our son, Josh, wouldn’t clean up his room, we got him to do so only because we met his personal desire – Ice cream!

But here in Parshat Mattot, Moses was successful because he was able to get the tribes to temporarily set aside their own desires and, instead, act on behalf of the community’s needs.

“Help the community,” Moses insisted; “Then you can satisfy your own desires.”

Some of us here today know what it means to sacrifice… temporarily or even permanently.

You gave up something …but that largely meant on behalf of someone – usually a spouse or maybe your children.

But a whole community?

Lay aside a desire in order to serve the community?!

Some among us did so in military service to our country.

But beyond that, the notion of even temporarily setting aside our desires in order to serve the community is really out of the ordinary … even more so today than in earlier years.

And yet, as we read the story of Moses and the two and a half tribes that remained just outside the Land of Israel, that story feels like it’s sharing a truth with us.

Sometimes we can discern something we might call “the common welfare” or “the greater good” within the Jewish community and outside it.

And sometimes we know we ought to act to support it, even if it leads us to delay satisfying our own desires or maybe ever doing so.

Yet seldom do we actually do so.

Seldom do we act counter to our desires or needs, even for a short time, in order to act on behalf of “the greater good.”

To be honest, I’m not certain this story provides us with unquestionable, singular direction as to how to live … but it sure does challenge us to think and perhaps act in some uplifting ways we hardly, if ever, consider.

Shabbat Shalom.