Lessons for Humanity
from the Weekly Parshah
On this and the following Shabbos we complete our annual study of the book of BAMIDBAR (Numbers) by reading its two lengthy closing parshiyos, MATOS and MAS'EY, together. This year (which was a leap year) each of the parshiyos is read on its own Shabbos, but in most years these two parshiyos are read on one Shabbos to ensure that we begin reading the book of DEVARIM (Deuteronomy), with its central theme of TESHUVAH -- coming home to G-d -- on the last Shabbos prior to the fast of 9th Av commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple.
As discussed in earlier commentaries, Genesis is the "head" of the Torah, Exodus the "arms" (the "outstretched arm" of redemption), Leviticus the "heart", Numbers the "legs" (journeying through the wilderness to reach the Land) and Deuteronomy the "mouth", trumpeting forth: "Hear O Israel!" Coming at the end of the book of Numbers, these two parshiyos show us the Children of Israel at the end of their journeying in the wilderness, assembled in the plains of Moab, facing Jericho, poised to enter the Land. It was here that Moses delivered his final discourses, which make up the book of Deuteronomy. The various Messianic themes and allusions in this week's double parshah make them appropriate reading for the central Shabbos of the Three Week period of mourning for the lost Temples, which is a preparation for the Restoration quickly in our days. [KINOT, "lamentations" = TIKUN, "rectification.]
The uniqueness of the prophecy of Moses is seen in the opening words of parshas MATOS introducing the laws of vows. "And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel saying, THIS is the word that G-d has commanded." (Numbers 30:2). There are various levels of prophecy, which may come through "a clear glass" or through a "dim glass". The latter is the case in countless verses in the prophetic literature where the prophet says "KO -- So said HaShem", indicating that the words of the prophecy are LIKE -- resemble -- the actual Truth, yet they are merely similar, an evocation of something that in itself is actually much higher. Moses himself also prophesied using the comparative expression KO, as in Exodus 11:4. However, as Rashi points out (in his comment on Numbers 30:2), unique among all the prophets, Moses also used the expression ZEH HADAVAR -- "THIS is the word", the actual word of G-d. For Moses revealed the very P'NIMIUT, the "inner essence" of G-d, like no other prophet.
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WORDS AND COMMITMENTS
An important theme in Parshas MATOS is the care with which we must use words and language because of their very great power -- language is the "glass" that may either reflect or obscure the truth. "When a man wants to make a vow to HaShem or to swear an oath placing a prohibition upon himself, he must not profane his word. He must do according to all that comes forth from his mouth." (Numbers 30:3).
We live in an age when streams of verbiage flow forth at us in such quantities from all directions -- billboards, papers, magazines, TV, radio, Internet and on and on -- that we can easily become almost completely desensitized to words, their meaning and importance. We take it for granted that politicians make promises and undertakings which they have no intention of keeping; that "experts" shoot forth with torrents of instant comment which are as enduring as rotten fruit; that commercial advertising has turned the destruction of language into an art-form; that the media are filled with every kind of irreverence and unholiness.
As a medicine against this desensitization, the Torah asks us to think hard about the words we bring forth from our own mouths, and particularly the personal commitments we make. While we often focus on language as the means of communication with each other, with ourselves and with G-d, the concept of the vow is one where we use our G-d-given gift of speech to elevate ourselves spiritually. One might take a vow to dedicate something of worth to the Temple or charity, or to erect a personal boundary and abstain from some undesirable behavior that has proved a pitfall for oneself and others. The father of the vow was Jacob, when he came to Mount Moriah and had his dream of the ladder. In the morning, he set up a stone, the prototype Temple Altar, and vowed that if G-d would protect him and provide his needs, he would make this the House of G-d and tithe all he received (Genesis 28:20). [David the Messiah also swore and vowed he would not rest until he found a place and a dwelling-place for G-d, the Holy Temple -- Psalms 132:1-5.]
Because of the extreme seriousness of an oath or vow to G-d, the Torah Codes advise us not to take actual oaths or vows unless we are thoroughly conversant with the intricacies of their laws. Much of the discussion in the relevant Talmudic tractates of Nedarim, Nazir and Shavuos is bound up with careful analyses of the meanings and implications of different kinds of phraseology. The larger part of the section on vows in our parshah is taken up with special laws that apply to vows made by an unmarried, betrothed or married woman, which may be nullified by her father and/or husband. This is because vows she may make even with the best intentions could cause complications in her domestic life that might affect others (e.g. if she were to vow to abstain from certain foods or not to use cosmetics, etc.). Her freedom is circumscribed by her responsibilities to others, and the Torah gives her father and/or husband the last word on whether to uphold her vows. Indeed we should not make vows or commitments that can affect others detrimentally. The point is not to deter us from making commitments, but rather to impress upon us the care with which we should go about making them and the seriousness with which we must uphold them.
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THE WAR AGAINST MIDIAN
It is significant that the final war fought by the Children of Israel prior to their entry into the land was the war for sexual morality -- to rectify the degradation of the sin of BAAL PE'OR as described at the end of parshas BALAK. The crafty Bilaam knew that sexual sin is the undoing of the holiness of Israel and the Midianites took his advice to entice the Israelites to take the short road from immorality to idolatry. The true holiness of the Land of Israel can be revealed only when the Land is cleansed of sexual immorality and degradation. [Similarly, Jacob went back to Beit El only after vengeance for the rape of Dinah and cleansing his house of idolatry, Genesis ch. 34-5.] It was to bring moral cleansing that 1000 warriors from each of the Twelve Tribes went out against the Midianites, together with Pinchas, who was weighed against all of them. Pinchas was the hero of moral cleansing ever since he killed the Prince of the Tribe of Shimon and his Midianite woman.
The warriors return from this war with war booty, which is documented in detail in our Parshah. When we overcome the war against immorality, we can reclaim the lost booty -- the energy that was degraded to the level of the animal, and which can now be elevated and used in pursuit of the holy. However, what Israel takes from the nations must be purified. It was necessary to kill the Midianite males -- the concept of the active MASHPIAH (source of influence) -- for the active immoral influence had to be destroyed. However, those women who had not "known" a male could be saved: that which is receptive to the Israelite influence can be reclaimed. The material wealth taken from the Midianites also had to be purified. A percentage had to be dedicated to the Temple, and even that which could be released for personal use had to be purified.
Our parshah is thus an important source for the laws of purification of vessels of metal, wood or other materials that had previously been in the possession of and used by non-Israelites (Numbers 31:21-4). "Every thing (literally, word) that can come into fire you must pass through the fire and it will be pure, but it must be purified with the waters of NIDAH, whileall that cannot come into fire you must pass through the water." From this are derived the laws of kashering utensils that have absorbed forbidden substances, and the laws of immersing vessels in a kosher mikveh. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I:4) points to the esoteric meaning of these laws, which teach how to repent for our sins. If we sinfully took our holy powers and energies and burned them up in the fires of animal lust, we must take "what came into fire" and "pass it through the fire". We must repent by confessing our sins with words of fire, burning them up with holy intensity, the fire of our passion to now rectify and elevate our energies. And so too, the pure waters of the Torah, the mikveh, purify the vessel, the body.
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THE SONS OF REUVEN AND GAD'S CONDITION
Following the war with Midian, the account of the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to take their share of the Land in the conquered territories EAST of the River Jordan and Moses' response is written Torah proof of the Children of Israel's possession of these territories in the true "final settlement".
Were the Sons of Reuven and Gad really more interested in pasture-lands for their cattle than having a share in the Promised Land? The Aramaic Targum of Onkelos reveals what is concealed beneath the Torah verse detailing the locations east of the Jordan upon which the Sons of Reuven and Gad had set their eyes. These include MOUNT NEVO, which the Targum informs us is the burial-place of Moses (Numbers 32:3). That was what the sons of Reuven and Gad had set their eyes on. They already knew what Breslovers know about the grave of Rabbi Nachman, what Lubavitchers have learned about the Ohel of the Rebbe, what those who frequent Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's gravesite in Meiron or the resting place of the Avot (Patriarchs) in the holy city of Hevron know. The greatest true wealth is our connection with the Tzaddikim who are the true Foundations of the Universe. The graves of the true Tzaddikim are points where the physical interconnects with the spiritual, and where we can make a connection with G-d's truth.
Even so, Moses scolded the Sons of Reuven and Gad for wanting to stay out of the Land, suggesting that they were like the Spies whose perverted use of language led the hearts of the Israelites astray. Coming after the laws of purified language -- vows and oaths -- at the beginning of our parshah, Moses' binding of the Sons of Reuven and Gad with a detailed set of conditions is another lesson in the precision with which we must use language. We have to make commitments, and we have to keep them. We must take care with the way we formulate our commitments, and care to carry them out.
The Sons of Reuven and Gad were committed to supporting their brother Israelites in conquering the Land. This should serve as a model for those who reside outside the Land, whose share in the Land is strengthened by giving support to those who live in it and fight the war there every day.
Parshas MATOS concludes with a detailed account of the territories given by Moses to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh east of the River Jordan. These include all of the mountain and valley areas from north of the River Arnon, which flows into Yam HaMelach (the "Dead" Sea) up to Chavot Yair, which are the lands south east of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
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Already in MATOS when Moses castigated the Sons of Reuven and Gad with being like the Ten Spies, the theme of Moses' reproof enters the Torah, and it continues in MAS'EY and in the book of Deuteronomy. After the events of the forty years wandering, which we have studied in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, the time has come to begin to review the lessons and reduce them to their essentials.
MAS'EY begins with a review of the forty years wandering. On the surface, the list of encampments and journeyings seems prosaic. However, the second Targum on the Torah, that of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel, disciple of Hillel, fills in much of the moral significance of the different staging posts in those difficult years, showing that the list itself is a form of reproof. It teaches us that there are times when we must look back, review and draw conclusions and lessons from the past. This is particularly necessary when we stand on the brink of new challenges, as in the case of the Children of Israel, who stood poised to conquer the Land.
Included in the account of the wanderings is a reference to the death of Aaron the High Priest, specifying the date of his ascent to the mountain to die -- the first day of the fifth month, which is the month of Av. This is a reminder to us that the present year is beginning to draw to a close, with only two months to go before the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. As we proceed in the period of Repentance (the Three Weeks, followed by Elul and Tishri) we should take time to review our lives and reflect on where we are trying to go. This way we will be prepared for the challenges of the coming year -- the Conquest of the Land.
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THE BOUNDARIES OF THE LAND AND ITS CONQUEST
Parshas MAS'EY provides the detailed topography of the boundaries of the Land of Israel, prefixed by G-d's commandment to the Children of Israel to destroy all the evil influences in the Land to make it a place fit for the exalted mission instituted by the Fathers of the World, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Israel, with Jerusalem at its center and its eternal capital, is to be the source of Torah and Light for all the nations. "For the Torah will go forth from Zion and the Word of HaShem from Yerushalayim". The Torah warns clearly that unless all the evil influences are removed from the Land, they will be "like pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will persecute you over the land in which you are dwelling" (Numbers 33:55).
The Boundaries of the Land are given as a COMMANDMENT (Numbers 34:2). While nobody doubts that the true Land of Israel includes all the territories west of the River Jordan, few are aware of where the southern and northern borders of the biblical Promised Land actually are.
Of course the Land will only become Israel's without contest when Israel will fulfill its part of the Conditions of G-d's Covenant to give them the Land. (The section in MATOS about the Conditions with which Moses bound the Sons of Reuven and Gad is also a lesson about Conditions, to which Moses returns again and again in his discourses in Deuteronomy: "If you will do this. and if you will not.")
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THE LEVITICAL CITIES AND THE CITIES OF REFUGE
Since the Levites did not have a share in the Land, they were given forty-two cities of their own up and down the Land together with all the necessary surrounding areas. The Levitical Cities indicate the distinctive nature of the Land of Israel in contrast to all other lands. It's social geography is centered upon a network of cities where people are free from the immediate requirement to make a living (the Levites received tithes) in order to devote themselves to the study and teaching of G-d's Law. Thus everyone in the Land is always near a center of study and near to someone they can ask for guidance.
The Torah's abhorrence for killing and murder is expressed in the portion that gives the laws of unintentional manslaughter and deliberate murder (Numbers 35:9ff). Not only has our world become desensitized to language, as discussed above. It has also been desensitized to the evil of killing and murder, which are openly celebrated be terrorists as "religious acts", while the TV and movies provide an endless diet of violence to the population.
The spilling of blood is a crime against the Land, and the holiness of the Land of Israel will only shine again when we can cleanse ourselves of this terrible scourge and re-establish the Law of the Torah, which outshines and transcends all manmade laws. The Torah not only teaches the evil of killing and murder but has no compunction about imposing all necessary sanctions in order to eliminate them, including the death penalty. Even one who had committed an unintentional manslaughter had to hide himself away from the rest of society in a city of refuge, unlike today, where killers with blood on their hands are released from jail and celebrated as heroes.
"And you shall not pollute the Land in which you dwell that I dwell in its midst, for I am HaSheM dwelling among the Children of Israel" (Numbers 35:34). Speedily in our days. Amen.
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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