We were in the middle of the Torah reading one morning during my years in yeshivah when something strange occurred. The gabbai had approached one of the students and offered to call him to the Torah for an aliyah, but he was feelingOur teacher was less than impressed shy and refused. The gabbai moved on, but the next person to whom he offered the aliyah was running behind the minyan and preferred to catch up with his prayers, while the two boys at the next table politely deferred to each other.

It took them only a few seconds of quiet negotiation before one of them gratefully accepted and made his way to the bima, but the whole interlude had already caught the eye of our rosh yeshiva (head of school), and he was less than impressed.

Immediately after we finished davening, the rosh yeshiva rapped on the table to call our attention.

He started by describing some of the synagogue-centered court cases and controversies recorded in the rabbinical literature throughout history. There have been times where entire communities have become embroiled in a dispute that started off between two men arguing for the right to a particular seat in the synagogue. The Code of Jewish Law lists in exhausting detail which congregant has first rights to lead the prayer services or recite Kaddish, and woe betide the unwitting congregation where the wrong man misses his turn.

In the old days, people would fight for an aliyah, he informed us, because they valued the opportunity to be called to the Torah and recite the blessings. “Doesn’t your apparent indifference demonstrate a lack of appreciation for Torah?” he demanded.

Most of the boys shuffled out of the sanctuary that morning looking more than a little shamefaced, but I stayed back while everyone else went down to breakfast. I’d always had a good relationship with the rabbi, and I felt comfortable privately asking him to clarify his comments. Would he really want to see us jostling and maneuvering for an aliyah, I asked him; surely, he’d rather people maintaining the peace than punching on in public?

He agreed with me. It takes a pretty small man to get so caught up in his own individual desires that he’d be willing to disrupt an entire congregation to get his chance in the sun. On the other hand, you should properly value that religious experience that you are relinquishing.

There is a difference between apathy and generosity. When you give up something you want in order to make someone else happy, that is commendable. But when you ignore something because you don’t value it sufficiently, that is inexcusable.

The Green Grass on the Other Side

We find a parallel discussion in this week’s Torah portion.

When the two tribes of Reuben and Gad see the fecund pastures of Midian and request permission to stay in Jordan rather than crossing over into Israel, Moses is upset. He accuses them of base ingratitude and insufficient appreciation for the Holy Land.

Eventually, after the tribes promise to maintain their eternal bond with the rest of the nation and volunteer to accompany their brothers into battle, Moses acquiesces and allocates land on the East Bank to Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe.

Half of Menashe? Where did they come from?

If Moses was upset at the first two tribes just for asking, why would he independently allocate Menashe a homeland there?

Obviously, the fact that Moses allows some Jews to live there demonstrates that Moses recognized that there was value in having some of the nation living on the far side. The two-and-a-half tribes living beyond the Jordan served as a protective bulwark, shielding the vulnerable east flank of Israel from attack, and serving as the intermediaries between Israel and surrounding nations. Moses had no problem, in theory, with setting aside some tribes to live on the other side of the Jordan.

But Moses was upset with the tribes who asked to leave the team—those who wanted to separateThere is a difference between apathy and generosity themselves from our common destiny. There were valid reasons to split up, but financial considerations and lack of appreciation for the holiness of the Holy Land aren’t some of them.

Moses wanted the people to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the higher purpose, but he was disappointed by those people who didn’t even realize that living away from our homeland is a sacrifice.

So, too, as my teacher had pointed out, we should never fight for ourselves or push another person aside so that we can go forward. But at the same time, we should appreciate the beauty and wonder of G‑d, holiness and Judaism, and take whatever chance we can to get closer to G‑d.