Communal Responsibility

Photo by Eldad Rafaeli

July 29, 2022

Words make a difference. As a person who uses words to share thoughts, opinions, and insights, and to ultimately highlight the good in the world, words have great power. So, when the Torah quotes identical phrases or messages but changes a word or two, that tends to draw my attention.

It can be as obvious and grand as in the Ten Commandments, where “Remember the Sabbath Day” (Exodus 20:8) is retold as “Observe the Sabbath Day” (Deuteronomy 5:12), or it could be as simple as using the softer and more unique word “Emor” (“speak to”) versus the more frequent, direct, and even dictatorial “Daber” (“say to”).

Similarly, in this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Massei, we read that the leaders of two of the tribes from Gad and Reuben, in conversation with Moses on the border of the Promised Land, change their tone from, “Your servants will do as my lord [Moses] commands” (Numbers 32:25) to “Your servants… will do as my lord [Moses] says to do” (32:27).  This change in tone is something I want to find out more about.

Our sages teach us that this softening in their language is because of Moses’ rebuke. When the leaders of the tribes of Gad and Reuben come to Moses to share their preference to settle on the more fertile land on the East Bank of the River Jordan rather than cross over into their ancestral promised land of Canaan, Moses listens to their request. However, what Moses hears is that after forty years of wandering, and on the eve of entering into battle with their cousins to reclaim their Promised Land, the descendants of Gad and Reuben are only doing so because they are being “commanded to” and not because they see it as their duty and responsibility.

Moses chastises them for “separating” themselves from their family. Not that these two tribes shouldn’t settle in the land they desire, but rather that they don’t feel responsible for securing the land for their community. It is only after this rebuke that their tone changes from “as we are commanded to do” to “as we want to do.”

The struggle between personal gain and success versus communal growth and sustainability is as old as civilization itself. The drive for independence, mastery and the benefits of material wealth are powerful motivators.

Our Jewish tradition has always taught us that to be “Jewish” one needs a community. While many prayers can be recited alone, certain ones require a community of at least ten, a minyan, showing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is said that this communal responsibility to one another is how Jews have survived greater dynasties, more powerful empires, and centuries of authoritarian sovereignties.

Just as the descendants of Gad and Reuben understood this lesson so too must we today appreciate it. If not for our collective advocacy as a united Jewish community and through our collaborations with the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), the Jewish community could not have advocated for the following critical initiatives and projects included in the current Senate appropriations bills:

  • $360 million for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to protect houses of worship and other nonprofit organizations from rising threats.
  • $10 million for the Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program to support the increasing needs of Holocaust survivors and their caregivers.
  • $10 million toward the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, which will provide law enforcement with the necessary resources to monitor and combat hate crimes.
  • $50 million toward the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), established to promote people-to-people programs between Israelis and Palestinians to help build the cooperation, coexistence, and mutual understanding needed to create an environment conducive to peace in the region.
  • $500 million to sustain the Iron Dome Missile Defense System.
  • $330 million to preserve the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), which reimburses organizations, including Jewish agencies, for providing shelter and housing to families and individuals in dire need, and supports migrants who have crossed the southern U.S. border.

All of this is only possible because we are…


Shabbat Shalom,