Over these last months we have watched in horror as the most vulnerable among us — immigrant children — have been separated from their parents as part of a cruel federal policy to deter asylum seekers and deny desperate families basic compassion. I know you read the news and have heard this before. But if we stop talking about the fact that thousands of children are still being held as political hostages by our government, we will forget.
Even while a handful of children were reunited with their parents this week after months of separation, many remain in detention centers, uncared for, lonely, fearful and
uncertain of when they will see their parents. Our hearts break as we see pictures of children in cages, children crying out, and children reuniting with their parents looking traumatized. We rally, call our elected officials to demand an end to family separations, and give tzedakah to organizations working to reunite families.
And still we have trouble sleeping at night when we know these children, and the thousands of others who go to bed hungry or fear violence in their schools and neighborhoods, cannot. The test of a moral society is how it treats its most vulnerable. As Nelson Mandela said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
The Torah teaches us this week the importance of building a safe society for our children, and more broadly, of prioritizing people. The Israelites are approaching the end of their long journey to the Land of Israel. While standing on the shores of the Jordan River, members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses and ask if they can stay on that side of the river rather than crossing over with the rest of the Israelite people. “Geedrot tzon nivneh limkinanu po, v’arim l’tapainu” — “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children,”(Numbers 32:16) they say. Moses responds to the request with fury. “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? (32:6)” In other words, Reubenites and Gadites, are you not going to join your brethren in conquering the land of Israel, preferring to stay safe and comfortable on this side of the Jordan? We’ve come all this way and now you’re backing out, leaving everyone else to do the hard work of settling the land? Moses accuses these tribes of behaving like the wicked child at the Passover Seder — removing themselves from the Israelite people and not contributing to the mission. But he is angry for another reason, as well.
The midrash notes that these tribes mention building enclosures for their flocks first, and only secondarily, that they will build towns for their children. Moses does not let this slide. After negotiating with the tribes, Moses agrees that they can remain permanently on the other side of the Jordan on the condition that they contribute troops to conquer the land. But he also teaches these tribes an important lesson about priorities, instructing them to “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks” (32:24). Moses reverses the order here. First and foremost, build towns for your children. Take care of your young. Ensure their safety and well being. This is the basic job of a society. Only then can you pursue any other endeavors.
The word for cattle in Hebrew is mikneh, from the same root as kinyan, to acquire. Owning mikneh in the Torah implies that one is wealthy, that one has acquired a great deal, and the tribes of Reuben and Gad are described as owning many cattle. Their request illustrates their desire to protect and grow their wealth above ensuring the security of their children. According to the midrash, God says to them: “Seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in [your land].” When a society prioritizes its children, schools are safe places for learning, no child goes to sleep hungry, and children of all races and neighborhoods have access to an excellent education. When we don’t make children our highest priority, the midrash teaches, there is no blessing in our land.
Throughout the journey in the desert, God has been modeling for us how a society should care for its children and its most vulnerable members. God has fed and sheltered the Israelites, a group of former slaves, at every step. This point is driven home in our parashah. Moses recounts the entire journey up until this point, naming the 42 different places the Israelites have camped. “The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succot. They set out from Succot and camped at Etham. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-Hahirot” (Numbers 33:5-7) and so on. Why do we recount this list in excruciating detail? What does this accomplish? Midrash Tanchuma sees recalling these stops on the people’s journey as an illustration of unconditional divine love and kindness. The midrash likens God recalling the people’s travels to a king whose son becomes sick. The king takes his son to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father begins recounting all the stages of their journey together, saying, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache” (Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3).
Our Sages believed that God experienced the journey in the wilderness along with the Israelite people. The list of place names in the Torah suggests a loving parent reliving the past triumphs and struggles of his or her children. It’s as if they were looking through a photo album together, recalling highs in their relationship, like crossing the Sea of Reeds, and lows, such as the encampment at Refidim when the people had no water to drink, complained bitterly and questioned whether God had abandoned them. Throughout the journey, God stays with them, as a good parent does, even when things are difficult — remaining steadfast, loyal, and present.
There are small steps we can take to care for children in this way. During this month of Menachem Av, we have the opportunity to confront our shortcomings as a people, as we prepare to mourn the destruction of the Temples and other communal catastrophes one week from tonight on the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av. Please come next Saturday at 8:45 pm as we gather as a community at Grove Park to mourn our past, but also to address a grievous challenge our country faces today. Our program will center on mourning the children and teachers who have died by senseless acts of gun violence. Together we will recommit to the fight to end this modern-day plague. And starting July 30, Beth El will be hosting a group of homeless families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network for a week. We are especially looking for elementary-school-aged children and high school kids from our community who would like to play with the kids on the nights of August 3 and 4, but if you are interested in helping to cook meals or play with children on other nights, that is appreciated as well. Please contact Adena Traub to sign up.
The name of this new month, Menachem Av, literally means “father comforts.” It’s a name that reminds us of the duty of each generation to provide comfort and strength for the next. So let us not be like the Reubenites and Gadites, who prized their own prosperity and neglected to put children first. Let us think always of the young and the vulnerable, and protect those who need us most. Let us model ourselves after the loving Parent who comforts us all, and work to ensure that all our children are safe and well-cared for. That’s the true test of who we are, as a people and as a nation.