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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Matot Masey (Numbers 34:1-18) – ‘British Jews’ or ‘Jewish Brits’

>Parashat Matot Masey
‘British Jews’ or ‘Jewish Brits’
(Numbers 34:1-18)

Almost every year on RSY-Netzer’s Shemesh summer camp there would be a programme all about identity. During this session we would be asked to consider whether we are ‘British Jews’ or ‘Jewish Brits’. How did our Jewish and British identity fit together? Where were the areas of conflict? And which identity was most important in our self-definition? The debate in the programme was always interesting, and people would offer different answers based on their own life experience and perception of their dual identity.

Initially I liked to say I was a ‘Jewish Brit’; the Jewish part came first, as the defining feature of my identity, and was followed by my nationality. As I grew through the movement I used to say I was a ‘British Jew’; the Jew is the noun, and the British part is an adjective describing it. Today I would say I am British and Jewish and I am a Brit and a Jew simultaneously. There is no necessary conflict between the two, and the interaction of these two elements of my identity has defined me as the person I am today.

We can imagine that the Israelites had no such problems of dual identity. They were all Israelites, united by their shared journey to the Promised Land. But while the Israelites formed a unified whole, they were still divided into different groups – the twelve tribes. Each person had a tribal identity and an Israelite identity.

In this week’s Torah portion, as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, the division of the tribes is emphasised. The boundaries of the land, which Israel will inhabit, are described first (Numbers 34:2-12), and then the text explains that it will be divided amongst the tribes. ‘This is the land which you shall inherit by lot, which Adonai commanded to give to the nine and a half tribes’ (Numbers 34:13). Although all of the Israelite tribes left Egypt together, their shared journey will culminate in a divided land, split up between nine and a half tribes.

They will conquer the land together, as it belongs to them all; but they will inhabit it according to their tribal associations. The text itself makes an important statement by laying out the boundaries of the entire land before focussing on the idea of individual tribal allocations. It is a unified land, even though it will be divided amongst the tribes.

It is striking that two and a half tribes will not be receiving an allotment in the Promised Land. Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, have already received their land allocation on the other side of the Jordan (Numbers 32). However, as part of this agreement they committed: ‘We will pass over armed before Adonai into the land of Canaan, that the possession of our inheritance on this side of the Jordan may be ours’ (Numbers 32:32). Despite not receiving a share in the Land of Israel these two and a half tribes committed to participate in the fight to conquer it as a result of their shared Israelite identity. They knew that they would not share in the spoils of war, but they recognised that they had an obligation to the entire Israelite community.

The challenge of dual identity is therefore one which has been around the Israelites from the day we left Egypt (if not before). What is significant is the way in which the tribes found ways to be united, while remaining independent; cooperating despite different rewards. As ‘British Jews’ or ‘Jewish Brits’ our challenge is to make sense of our dual identity, so that we can contribute both to the Jewish community and British society. We flourish when both are flourishing, and we suffer when either one is in distress. We do not have to decide on what the label will be, we just have to commit to recognising our dual loyalty, and working to be a positive influence on both.

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