from the heart of jerusalem

The nation of Israel as the sum of our parts


Maxim Cohen was born in Morocco and made aliyah as child. He enlisted in the IDF, but left Israel with his parents after the Six-Day War to live in France.

On Yom Kippur in 1973, Cohen was in the synagogue during afternoon prayers when his wife arrived in a car. He immediately knew something was wrong. He rushed outside to discover that war had broken out in Israel, and ran to the Israeli embassy in Paris, where soldiers clamored to return to Israel and join the war effort. 

Cohen was attached to an armored force fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai. His unit eventually crossed the Suez Canal, and after three weeks of intense combat, arrived at the outskirts of the city of Suez on October 24 — the last day of the war.

The IDF decided to attempt to conquer the city, a key strategic point on the canal. Preparations were rushed and the breaching forces received little intelligence. Cohen found himself part of an armored column rolling into the city.

Suddenly, on an apparently empty street, an inferno was unleashed. The Israelis were trapped in a wall of fire. Bazooka rockets, anti-tank missiles, and thousands of grenades and bullets from automatic weapons rained down on the Israeli force, which dispersed in every direction.

The battle continued for hours. Cohen’s commander was hit, along with many soldiers. Cohen maintained composure under heavy fire and proceeded to evacuate the wounded while running over enemy troops. Without concern for his own safety, he drove back into the city and the heart of the inferno again and again to save more wounded troops.

He was later awarded the Medal of Courage for his resourcefulness, composure, and for putting his own life in danger to save the lives of his brothers.

What motivates a Jew safely living in France to drop everything at a moment’s notice for a land he was not even born in?

This week, we will read the double parsha of Matot-Masei, concluding the book of Bamidbar, which sees the transformation of the family of Yaakov into the nation of Israel. Bamidbar begins with a census, suggesting the value of each individual, something of a theme throughout the book.

There is a flow to it, both in terms of its events as well as the historical unfolding of the Jewish journey, which makes its conclusion odd: The final verses of the entire book of Bamidbar (36:1-13) return us to the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad and their quest to honor their fathers’ name by inheriting his portion in the absence of sons.

After G-d Himself rules that they should receive their father’s portion, the leaders of Menashe approach Moshe with a legitimate complaint: if the women marry outside the tribe, the land they inherit will end up in a different territory. G-d rules the question legitimate. The women can inherit their deceased father’s portion, but must then marry within the tribe.

Why this concern with where the land ends up? Aren’t we all one nation in the end? This seems like a less than inspiring idea with which to conclude one of the five books of the Torah. 

It’s also surprising that this story is not placed with the daughters’ original query to Moshe, back in last week’s parsha. Why are the two parts separated? 

Perhaps the Torah is making an important point. In truth, the daughters’ initial request was very individual: to uphold the name of their father and acquire land for their family. (Thus it appears in Pinchas, whose theme is clearly the power of individual action.)

But it takes a lot more than healthy individuals to build a society. It takes willingness to compromise to be part of a larger whole. It is no accident that the Jewish people are counted by tribes; each group brings something special to the nation while maintaining a level of individuality alongside its group identity. The Tribe is a paradigm of compromise between the individual’s need for self-expression and the need to sacrifice one’s wants and desires for a greater good.

And so the book that begins with the counting of every individual concludes with an expression of the danger of individual expression left unchecked. The Torah affirms the value of subjugating one’s desires to a greater good, without completely losing the value of the individual and the group to which one belongs.

Forty-five years ago, Maxim Cohen, safe and sound in Paris, gave it all up for something greater than himself, but through all the battles he fought, he never lost his individual religious identity. 

We live in a society that prioritizes the right to individual expression above all else. Whether debating prayer at the Kotel, or the right of every individual to choose the lifestyle he or she feels most comfortable with, we try to be sensitive to the needs and different forms of expression of every person.

But it is not accidental we always read these words during the Three Weeks between the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

In our desire to be sensitive to every individual, we cannot lose the beauty and value of the larger group that has kept us together all these thousands of years.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.