Parashat Mattot

Asking The Right Questions

The request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle outside of the Land of Israel raises the issue of balancing communal and individual needs.

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These discussions about the exchange between Moses and the tribes raises some tough questions about the overall message of our tradition. When should we advocate for ourselves as individuals and when should we see ourselves as part of a grander, broader, more shared enterprise? In formulating our own identities as individuals of action and consequence within the Jewish people, how do we figure out in what direction to throw our limited energy and resources? When should we sublimate personal considerations in deference to the collective good?

The Reubenites and the Gaddites' answer--Moshe's initial, angry response to the contrary--appears to be: Fulfill your collective responsibilities first, then do for yourself and your family. After Moshe reprimands them, they say they intend to see their Israelite brothers and sisters safely ensconced in the Land of Israel first, and only then will they return to the other side of Jordan to settle.

We are called upon to struggle with similar questions of priorities on a daily basis. There is always any number of excellent reasons not to give as much tzedakah (charity) as we did last year. All of us have expenses that relate to important personal and family needs, which only grow in number and weight over time. In an age when there is often very little sense of true obligation even to our own communities, our tradition demands from us parallel contemplation of collective and personal consequences of all of our actions. We are required to consider all the angles, and to make choices that don't always allow all our individual needs to be met before venturing out to help others.

In our lives, filled with complex equations of personal, familial, and national benefit--and in a larger society which often appears to celebrate, affirm, and even sanctify values of narrow self-aggrandizement--Judaism obligates us, at bare minimum, to pause and engage seriously with the question of how we must meet our broader obligations to each other, even as we reasonably advocate for our own prosperity and well-being.

It turns out that Hillel's three familiar, mellifluous questions plunge right to the heart of one of the starkest challenges to our ability to live individually righteous lives in the loving and obligating context of community: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).

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Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro

Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro, formerly the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, New Jersey, made aliyah in 2008.