As the Israelites ready to move into Eretz Yisrael, Moshe is approached by the tribes of Reuven and Gad. They tell Moshe that the land that the people have been going through on the way, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is great for pasturing their herds -- "and your servants have herds." And they ask Moshe if instead of moving into the Promised Land, they can live nearby.
Moshe is not quite sure what to make of the request. He first suspects that these tribes are looking to get out of their military duty. But the tribes pledge to send all their males of fighting age across the Jordan with the rest of the people. Their families and herds will wait for them on the east side until the fighting is over.
When you read the discussion in Numbers 32, you'll be struck by how long it is. Moshe and the Gadites and Reuvenites negotiate at length, repeating back to each other the terms of the agreement. If you step back from the words, it's almost as if Moshe is trying to figure out just what to make of the request for these tribes to live somewhere that is not quite the Promised Land, the home of the ancestors.
What does a place mean? Why are we so attached to certain places where we live, or have lived? For the tribes of Reuven and Gad, there is land in an economic sense, but no feeling of place. The needs of the herds are above all. It's fat land. (Is the "east side" always the fancier part of town?)
Moshe -- and presumably the other tribes, though we don't hear their reaction -- relate to the place they are going differently. They've already heard that the land is fertile but difficult; that it "devours its inhabitants." Shortly ahead in Deuteronomy, Moshe will not sugarcoat the situation. While there is milk and honey, figs and olives, there are also tough and craggy hills where farming is difficult. So what does the place mean?
The people view the place they are going backwards and forwards, so to speak. It is the land in all the stories they know about their ancestors, going back to Avraham and Sarah. And it is the land where they will become a holy nation. A land flowing with mitzvot, and with the mitzvah-performing people they will become.
It's a richer vision (no pun intended) than the one the Reuvenites and Gadites have. It's deeper, too. The midrash views this episode through the lens of future history -- the tribes of the northeast were the first to be exiled a few centuries later. While the others built a Temple and a society, and returned to the places named by their ancestors, the eastern tribes built no attachment to their territory beyond economics. So it was easy for the Assyrians to uproot them.
There's an obvious Zionist reading of this passage. Only the Land of Israel fosters a true attachment. All other places -- across the Jordan, or the Mediterranean, or the Euphrates, or the English Channel, or the Atlantic -- are just pieces of dirt.
Any of us living as Jews outside the Land have to reckon with that. Is our current home, or even the places we grew up, a place in any true sense?
It can be. I think in America it's a particular challenge, because the place is so new and so much of it is like the land of Gilead, the territory of Reuven and Gad. A place for the herds, the strip malls.
To some extent, though, what makes our homes here true "places" is bound up with the mitzvot and the Jewish life we make. New York is more than a piece of earth, even for those of us who don't live there. My own hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota -- a Jewish place called St. Paul! -- for me many of the memories are bound up with the Jewish places. The JCC of St. Paul, the Talmud Torah of St. Paul, even the 19-mile Walk for Israel route all through the city.
That kind of place is a kind of in-between. It's transient, between the Lithuania of my ancestors and Nashua, New Hampshire. None of these are Jerusalem, yet none of them are quite the land of Reuven and Gad. Outside the land, we can still find a sense of place -- of historical place, spiritual place. If we work at it, and are willing to live with: For now.