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Ruben, Gad, and the America's Cup

This week’s double Torah portion of Matot-Maasei is a difficult part of the Torah. Even as a vegetarian, I can accept the many sections of the Torah which deal with animal sacrifices, recognizing that this was the way people in ancient times served God. There are other portions dealing with war that, even considering the contrast between our modern sensibilities and those of the ancients (or lack thereof) I cannot accept. There is one section of the Parsha however which touched a familiar chord. As the Israelites are preparing to enter the Land of Israel which God promised to Abraham as an eternal inheritance, recognizing there would be a war against the Canaanites living there at the time, they girded themselves for what was to come. However, the tribes of Ruben and Gad owned a lot of livestock and told Moses that they wanted to stay on the other side of the Jordan River because the land there was better for their animals. Moses was angry with them because he felt they separated themselves from the rest of the Israelites, and were not going to fight for the land of Israel with the rest of the People. Moses said to them:

הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה.
'Shall your brethren go to the war, while you sit here?

Numbers 32:6

He then chastised them, equating them to the spies who caused the Jews to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, saying if the Reubenites and the Gadites didn’t fight for the land with the rest of their people, it would soften the resolve of everyone else and they would lose the fight for the Promised Land. In the end, Reuben and Gad went to fight with the rest of the people, and only after the land had been won, did they return to their families on the other side of the Jordan.

It reminds me of the passage in the Book of Esther, when it was decreed that all the Jews should be killed, Mordechai told Esther:

אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים
Don’t think that you will escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.

Esther 4:13

In other words, Esther shouldn’t separate herself from her people by hiding her identity and staying in the palace. In the end, the decree was going to impact all the Jews… including the Queen.

I see a parallel in the experience of the Reubenites & the Gadites, and with Queen Esther, to our situation today. I often hear people say, “Our community isn’t near the Ocean so Tikkun HaYam isn’t relevant to us.” Having been born and raised in the Midwest, I didn’t see the Ocean for the first time until I was 21 years old, so I understand how that attitude could influence people. But like the Tribes of Reuben and Gad, who couldn’t separate themselves from their responsibilities towards the whole of the Jewish People, those who do not live near the Ocean cannot ignore their responsibility to protect it. And like Queen Esther who thought she would be safe if she hid her identity in the Palace, don’t think just because you don’t live near the Ocean that you won’t be affected by the Ocean.

Water is the greatest connector on Earth. As the only substance which exists naturally in all the states of liquid, gas, and solid, you don’t need to live near the Ocean to be impacted by water. And since the Hydrological cycle carries evaporated water from the Ocean into the atmosphere which then falls back down to earth as rain or snow, even if you don’t live near the Ocean, you still experience it every day in one way or another. The rain which falls on your house today was in the Ocean not long ago. The river that flows through your city is on its way to the Ocean. The snow that you ski on in the mountains… was in the Ocean not long ago. The ice you scrape from your windshield in the winter… was in the Ocean. The water in the lake where you picnic with your family…was in the Ocean. The water you drink in your kitchen… was in the Ocean. The water that irrigates the field where your food grows…was in the Ocean. The water you use to brush your teeth and to bathe, was at one time in the Ocean. Basically, wherever you live… if you are alive, you are connected to the Sea.

On September 14, 1962, at the America’s Cup dinner in Newport, Rhode Island, President John F. Kennedy said: “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.” So, whether you live on a coast or in a desert, in the mountains or the plains, all of us are connected to water; and like the Tribes of Reuben and Gad, we cannot separate ourselves because we live further away. And like Queen Esther, we cannot hide from who we are. We are Jews, and we are Water (70%). We should be proud and protective of them both.


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