The combination of these two sections of the Torah constitutes the question, raised by all commentators over the ages, as to whether there is a connection between these two Parshiot, or is it just a matter of calendar convenience that unites them is one Torah reading on this coming Sabbath.
I have always believed that there are no random occurrences or events as they appear in the text in the Torah and in other holy writings. The Torah is not a random work, and these sections of the book are also not randomly put together. There must be a connecting bond, a common denominator that unites these two apparently disparate and different sections of the Torah.
I feel that it is in the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel that is the connection that links Matot and Maasei. In this reading of Matot, we are told of the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to settle themselves and their families, their flocks, their wealth, and talents outside the strict borders of the land of Israel. They point out to Moshe all the advantages that they would enjoy if he allowed them to take their share in the land of Israel east of the Jordan River.
Moshe resists their plan, and sharply criticizes them for advancing it publicly. However, he is powerless to change their minds and alter their demands. He reaches an accommodation with them, i.e. that they will participate in the conquest of the land of Israel itself and not forsake their brothers in the struggle to obtain the land of Israel for the tribes of Israel. However, it is obvious that even this result, to settle east of the Jordan River. is a disappointment.
Advancing in history, we see that centuries later the tribes of Reuven and Gad were the earliest ones who were forced into exile, losing their land and independence.
In the second section of this week’s Torah reading, we have the entire list of all the way stations that the Jewish people experienced during their sojourn in the desert of Sinai. Rashi is quick to point out that every one of these places had memories for the Jewish people, and were not just simply names of places, but, rather, descriptions of past events. Each place was a challenge and a test. We find in Judaism and Jewish thought that maintaining Jewish values is not always convenient. It demands sacrifice and memory of historical importance. In our time, many Jews, if not most of them, have again chosen to live outside the confines of the land of Israel. I do not mean to criticize any of them for this choice, but I merely make the observation that for almost all these Jews, it is a matter of convenience. It is the same type of convenience that led the tribes of Reuven and Gad to prefer the pasture lands of Transjordan over the land of Israel itself. It certainly was more convenient for them to do so, but the hard truth about Judaism is that it is never convenient – it is demanding, insistent and unwavering.
Remembering fondly all the way stations that we have experienced over our long exile in this world may create within us a feeling of nostalgia, but that is only because we do not directly face the lessons of exile, and what was endured throughout the centuries. It is certainly not for me to criticize Jews who choose to live outside of the land of Israel. It is their choice, and many, if not most, have good reasons to do so. But none of this changes the historical fact that only in the land of Israel do the Jewish people have a future, and only there will they be able to truly fulfill the mission set forth for them at Mount Sinai.
Rabbi Berel Wein