The Legitimacy of Living Outside of Israel

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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Dedicated by Ira Leiderman and Mindy Smith and their children Eric and Cara.


This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l (whose yahrzeit is Tammuz 21),
by the Wise and Etshalom families. Yehi Zikhro Barukh.



The Legitimacy of Living Outside the Land of Israel


Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In this week's parasha, we read of the request by the tribes of Gad and Reuven to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.  There are two principal stages in this story: the original request, and the elaboration, following Moshe's response. 


At first, we read that the two tribes see the eastern bank of the Jordan "and behold, the place was a place for grazing flocks," and therefore they approach Moshe and ask, "If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan."


Moshe's response is immediate and unequivocal.  At first, he reproaches these tribes for even suggesting the idea: "Shall your brethren then go to war while you sit here?!" But then he goes on to rebuke them for the more general influence that they are going to have: "Why do you dishearten Bnei Yisrael from passing over to the land which God has given them?" In the first sentence, he speaks as a prophet and spiritual guide; in the second, he reacts as a political and military leader, who must consider not only the ethical nature of their request, but also its wider national ramifications. 


But Moshe does not stop at these two admonitions.  He goes on to challenge them in his capacity as Moshe Rabbeinu – the person who has led and accompanied them through the wilderness for forty years, for whom the request by these two tribes comes as a slap in the face in view of all that he has tried to teach and inculcate: "So your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to view the land… and behold, you have risen up in place of your fathers, a gang of sinful people, to stoke up God's anger again against Israel."


Following this first part of the story, we reach the second part, where the tribes of Gad and Reuven respond: "We shall build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our children, but we ourselves shall go up armed before Bnei Yisrael until we have brought them to their place… We shall inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, for our portion has fallen to us on this eastern side of the Jordan."


The commentaries are divided as to whether this reaction is an elaboration of their original request, where Moshe did not at first understand their intention, or whether this represents an amendment to their original plan in light of Moshe's fierce response.  The verses themselves leave both options open.  Either way, when Moshe hears their explanation, he accepts their request and declares, "If you will do this thing… you shall be guiltless before God and Israel, and this land shall be your possession before God."


But we are left with an unanswered question: is the request by the tribes of Gad and Reuven now acceptable? Was Moshe's sole concern that these tribes would lend a hand in the conquest of the land? Is the very idea of leaving – or relinquishing their part of – the land not in itself problematic?


In Maskehet Bikkurim (1:10), R. Yossi states that bikkurim (first fruits) are not brought from the eastern bank of the Jordan, for it is not called "a land flowing with milk and honey."  Here we must ask: is the difference between the two sides of the Jordan so great, in terms of agricultural quality? Is it not possible that excellent produce could be grown on that side, too? The answer must lie on a deeper level, namely, the impurity that the Halakha imputes to "chutza la-aretz," areas outside the Land of Israel.


Now we have a better understanding of Moshe's rebuke, and the problem becomes even more acute: how can these tribes even suggest settling in a land that is spiritually inferior? Does the economic factor – "your servants have cattle" – justify their preference for a land that, while fertile, is impure?


The Talmud Yerushalmi offers another reason for the difference between Eretz Yisrael and other nearby areas: the former was given by God to Israel, and the latter they took for themselves.  This distinction explains why the Torah requires that tithes be brought only from the Land of Israel (even if the rabbis expanded the mitzva to include surrounding areas). According to this understanding, Moshe's rebuke shouts out from the verses: "Are you, for economic reasons, choosing to give up the land that 'God's eyes are upon it,' in favor of a land that you are taking of your own accord? Do you prefer a land where the intensity of God's Presence is incomparable to that of Eretz Yisrael, simply because you have been blessed with much livestock?"


The picture is rounded out by the narrative in Sefer Yehoshua, describing how, following the conquest of the land, the two-and-a-half tribes who settled on the eastern bank build an altar.  They declare that, in the event that in future generations people may suggest that the inhabitants of the eastern side of the Jordan have no portion in the God of Israel, this altar will be proof that this territory is indeed part of Eretz Yisrael.  Once again, the rebuke resounds in full force: if it is clear to these tribes - already in the generation that seeks to settle there - that the choice of the eastern bank of the Jordan may lead to a future situation where their identification and association with Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael will be brought into question, then why do they want so badly to remain there? Is it only because of the material advantages there?


Once again, we must return to our question: is Moshe now satisfied with the request by the tribes of Gad and Reuven, following their explanation? Is his sole concern that they participate in the war of conquest? We must conclude that this is not the case.  The turnaround in Moshe's attitude may be understood in light of the fact that at first, he believed that these tribes sought to sever themselves from the rest of the nation.  This aspiration was worthy of the strongest opposition and rebuke.  If this was what they were after, then they were indeed a "gang of sinful people." 


But after their explanation, Moshe lowers his level of opposition: their proposal is still an unworthy one, but they are no longer sinners.   Is their idea of making the eastern side of the Jordan their inheritance, owing to economic considerations, a sinful one? Apparently not.  Is their request worthy? Certainly not.  Those who abandon Eretz Yisrael – the land that God has given – for financial (or other) reasons are not sinning, in the regular sense of the word.  But they are undoubtedly missing the mark in terms of the aim towards which Moshe, and all the leaders of Jewish history, have tried to lead and educate!



[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashot Matot-Masei 5762 (2002).]