This double parsha is read during "The Three Weeks", the 21-day period from Tammuz 17 to Av 9 when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the onset of the centuries-long galut (exile and spiritual displacement)?
Matot begins with laws regarding the annulment of vows within a family, shifts to the story of a war against the Midianites, and ends with Moshe negotiating with the tribes of Gad and Rueven over their desire to settle east of the Jordan river.
The middle part of parsha Matot, Bamidbar/Numbers 31, tells us that God Commanded Moshe to gather an army to wage a war of vengeance against the Midianites. The Army spared no man and took the women captive; most of whom were executed in captivity.
Moshe later reminds the officers that it was the women who tempted the Israelites to sin – back in parsha PInchas.
This is an unpleasant and difficult story. It's very hard to reconcile this narrative with the Torah's overarching ethic of compassion and justice, and in fact, I'm going to suggest that we not even try.
Many commentators, from ancient days to more recent times, have tried to soften the history of this war, by enumerating reasons why the Midianites deserved what they got, or perhaps by allegorizing the story so that it's really not about a military campaign at all. Others suggest that such stories are merely reflective of the Torah's roots in real history; thus placing narratives of brutal conflict in their own historical context helps us understand that we cannot apply contemporary sensibilities to a very
These are all valid approaches to dealing with this and other difficult pieces of our tradition, but I'd like to suggest another.
Perhaps we should not soften, contextualize, or justify the hard texts, but confront them. Perhaps it's part of our spiritual
work as a people to look into even our most sacred stories and ask hard questions about morality and justice.
Consider this from the perspective of personal spiritual growth, which necessarily involves introspection and a fearless moral inventory. Becoming a mature human being means recognizing those parts of ourselves which we'd prefer to hide away, including
those aspects of the human psyche linked to anger, resentment, revenge, grudges, hurtful habits, and harsh judgments. Spiritual growth means looking at things within ourselves that we'd rather explain away or avoid altogether, yet a basic premise of
Judaism is that a loving God has given us the capability to transcend our inner fault lines, if we will only seek truth and forgiveness and continue our work of "cheshbon ha-nefesh", or "soul-accounting."
I think what's true for an individual is also true for our people: buried deep within our sacred texts and traditions are occasional remnants of things we'd rather not look at, things like violence, sexism, and xenophobia (racial intolerance). We will grow as a
people (and within particular communities) by confronting such texts honestly and fearlessly, and recognizing that even the Torah itself, because it is grounded in human history, reflects human flaws and failings. The promise of Judaism is not human perfection- that's impossible. The promise of Judaism is that our faults are not our destiny- if we will seek self-knowledge without evasion.
The portion Massei is the final parsha of the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers. It begins with a long list of all the places the Israelites
camped during their 40 year journey,a total of 42 journeys and encapments and then describes the borders of the Land of Israel, which the Israelites will soon inhabit. The Israelites must designate "cities of refuge" for those who cause accidental death, and the parsha concludes with a revisiting of inheritance laws.
In chapter 35, there is an extensive explanation of the "cities of refuge", which begins:
"The Lord spoke to Moses saying: 'Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan to the land of
Canaan, you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a person who unintentionally killed
shall flee there.' " (Bamidbar/Numbers 35:9-11)
The rest of the chapter describes the precise conditions under which someone might end up in one of the cities of refuge, but
the basic idea is that if somebody killed a person by accident (what we call manslaughter), they should be allowed to live in a
safe city, and may not be sought out for revenge by the victim's family. On the other hand, it was also forbidden to allow a real
murderer to escape; the Torah prescribes capital punishment for premeditated murder, though the later rabbinic tradition strongly
circumscribed the conditions under which it could be enacted.
The ethical ideal of the cities of refuge is as relevant today as it was in Biblical times: punishment must be proportional, and any
judgment requires careful discrimination between differing sets of circumstances. Intentions matter; human beings make
mistakes, and the one who makes a tragic error is not to be held liable in the same way as one who harms out of hate or evil.
Yet this idea- that we must carefully consider a person's intentions and all the mitigating circumstances when judging an
action- is not just a judicial principle; it is essential to spiritual growth. Think for a minute about the situation that the Torah
proposes: someone is accidentally killed, and the responsibility of the community is to protect the killer from those who would
quite naturally seek revenge or blood-redemption. Passions must be cooled with reflection and thoughtful investigation.
In other words, precisely at a moment of tremendous stress for the entire community, when emotions are running high and the
temptation is great to take action against the one who caused harm- that is when the Torah tells us to slow down, think clearly,
investigate the circumstances, step back from the brink, and not allow tragedy to be compounded.
What is true for the accidental killer is even more true for those people we interact with every day: they deserve not to be
the victims of harsh judgments and hasty reactions when emotions are running high. People hurt each other; they make
mistakes; they act carelessly; they cause pain and distress- but they are usually not seeking to intentionally harm (and if they are,
it's often because of their own pain and struggle).
The Torah asks us to step back from the ordinary emotions of hurt and revenge and seek clarity about what is fair and right;
sometimes the path towards right relationships must be cleared by taking time to just think things out. Blood for blood (or insult
for insult, or sarcasm for sarcasm, or emotional manipulation for emotional manipulation) may be the way of strictest justice, but it
is not the way of God, Who demands that we rise above our quickest and basest instincts.
This is not to say that actions don't have consequences; after all, the accidental killer was still sent away from his home town to
the City of Refuge, where he might have to spend many years. Yet the Torah's greater principle is clear: rather than give in to
destructive impulses for revenge and retribution, we must see the humanity even in those who cause harm- a category which
includes all of us at one time or another. Humans are terribly imperfect, but we may love each other nonetheless.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov taught that nothing is incidental in God's world. Certainly, adds the Lubavitcher Rebbe, nothing is incidental in God's blueprint for creation, the Torah. Each week we "live with the times" (as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi put it), deriving guidance and inspiration from the week's Parshah. When a "double" reading comes along, we also dwell upon the contrasts and connections between the two Parshiot that combined to form the week's Torah portion.
Add to this the teaching by the great 16th century scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (the "Shaloh"), that the weekly Torah reading bears an integral relationship with the other time-landmarks with which it intersects. The fact that a certain Parshah is read in a certain month, or in proximity to a certain festival, imparts an additional facet to the lessons with which it instructs our lives that week.
So what is the lesson of Matot, what is essence of Massei, and what is the connection between them? And what is the significance of the fact that these two Parshiot are always read -- some years separately, and other years together -- during "The Three Weeks", the 21-day period from Tammuz 17 to Av 9 when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the onset of the centuries-long galut (exile and spiritual displacement)?
The following is based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks on several Shabbat gatherings (farbrengens) when this particular convergence of Torah readings occurred.
What's in a Name: Hardness
Hardness is one of those qualities which we are forever seeking to acquire and to rid ourselves of at the same time. There is more than a hint of condemnation when we describe a particular individual as a "tough" person, but no small measure of admiration as well. We denounce, in ourselves and others, behavior that is "obstinate" and "unyielding," but also agree on how important it is to have "backbone", to stand one's ground, and not be swayed from one's principles.
Indeed, our journey through life requires firmness as well as flexibility, hardness as well as pliancy. There are times and situations which necessitate, as our sages put it, to "be yielding as a reed, not hard as a cedar." Yet there are also times and situations when we are called upon to employ every iota of obstinacy and "stiff-neckedness" we can muster to resist all that threatens our integrity and seeks to deter us from our mission in life. In the words of Chassidic master Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa: "A person should have two pockets in his coat. In one pocket he should keep the verse, 'I am but dust and ashes'; his second pocket should contain the Talmudic saying, 'A person is commanded to say: For my sake was the world created.'"
This dual approach to life is implied in the Torah's two names for the tribes of Israel. While the people of Israel constitute one entity as God's "singular nation," they are comprised of twelve distinct tribes, each of which contributes its unique character and potential to our national mission. Thus, the Torah refers to Israel's tribes as shevatim, "branches," or matot, "rods," expressing the idea that they are offshoots from a common stem, distinct from each other yet parts of a greater whole.
While shevet and mateh are both synonyms for "branch," the shevet is a pliant, flexible bough, while mateh connotes a stiff stick or rod. Therein lies the deeper significance of these two names for the tribes of Israel: on certain occasions the Torah refers to us as "branches," stressing the need for flexibility and tractability in life. In other contexts we are called "rods," underscoring the need for firmness and determination in carrying out our mission as "a holy people" and "a light unto the nations."
The latter point is the lesson of the Parshah of Matot, which opens with the verse, "And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes..." Here, the tribes are called by the name matot -- a designation which becomes the name of the Parshah and the crux of its message: that there are times in the history of a people when they must employ the fortitude and fixity of the rod, when they must find the inner resolve to "stick it out" in a hostile and capricious world.
The Staff of Exile
Hardness is an acquired, rather than an intrinsic, state. While the potential for hardness always exists, it is actualized when a substance is subjected to galvanizing conditions and influences.
This can be seen in the shevet/mateh model. As a branch, the shevet is supple and yielding, bending to the wind and to every pressing hand. But when it is disconnected from the tree to face the elements as a lone, rootless rod, it stiffens into a mateh.
In other words, a mateh is a shevet hardened by the experience of galut. Deprived of tenderizing moisture from its nurturing roots, the latent hardness of the wood asserts itself, transforming the pliant branch into a rigid staff.
Therein lies the connection between the Parshah of Matot and the time of year in which it is read. During the Three Weeks, we mourn our exile from our homeland and the removal of God's open presence in our lives as it was revealed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We remember how the shevatim of Israel -- a people anchored to their roots, vitalized by an undisrupted flow of spiritual nurture through their limbs -- were torn from their tree to become a nation of homeless matot.
But even as the Torah commands us to mourn the events of the Three Weeks, it insists that our mourning be a constructive endeavor, an opportunity to focus on how our state of exile might be exploited to a positive end.
Even as we agonize over the rootlessness of galut, we must take advantage of the manner in which our disconnection from our natural environment strengthens us and galvanizes us. Even as we weep over the destruction of God's home and the absence of His revealed presence in our lives, we must tap the tremendous reserves of faith and fortitude evoked by the challenges of an alien society and environment --reserves which would not have been actualized were we to have remained a nation of shevatim undisturbed from their stem.
But there is more to galut than the toughening of the Jewish soul.
Galut is also a journey. A journey is not just a departure from home -- it is an advance towards a destination.
Indeed, this is the difference between a wanderer and a journeyer: the wanderer is escaping or being driven away from some place, while the journeyer is going to someplace. The wanderer is defined by where he is not, by the state and experience of homelessness and what this does to his inner self; the journeyer is defined by the place or places to which he goes and what he achieves there. When the wanderer and the journeyer return home, the wanderer brings back his "hardened" and matured self, while the journeyer brings the treasures procured at the various points of his itinerary.
What are we seeking in our places of exile? What will we bring home with us when we return from our journey to the ends of earth? The Talmud defines the purpose of galut as the acquisition of "converts." "The people of Israel were exiled amongst the nations," it declares, "only so that converts might be added to them."
These "converts" assume many forms. There are the literal converts -- non-Jews who were included in the community of Israel as the result of our contact with the peoples of the world. More significantly (since the Torah neither instructs nor encourages us to seek converts to Judaism), there is the more subtle conversion of a pagan world to the monotheistic ideals of Torah, achieved by our centuries and millennia of galut amongst the nations of the world.
This concept of galut is expressed by the second Parshah of our pair, the section of Massei ("journeys"), which chronicles the travels and encampments of the people of Israel in the Sinai desert.
The Parsha's name derives from its opening verses: "These are the journeys of the children of Israel, who went out from the land of Egypt... And they journeyed from Raamses... and they camped at Sukkot. They journeyed from Sukkot, and camped at Eitam..." Massei goes on to list the 42 journeys which comprised Israel's travels from Egypt to Mount Sinai to the Holy Land.
It is significant that the Torah refers to our ancestors' travels as "journeys" in the plural -- a plurality that is preserved in the name of the Parshah. If the purpose of galut were to lie solely in its rootlessness and what this brings out in the Jewish soul, then it should be defined as a "wandering" rather than a "journey"; and if its purpose were to lie exclusively in its ultimate "entry into the Holy Land" at galut's end, then our sojourn in the "desert of the nations" should be regarded as a single journey, not a series of journeys. The fact that the Torah considers galut to be Massei, "journeys," means that the purpose of galut is to be found also, and primarily, in the places to which it brings us, so that each of its travels is a journey and each of its "encampments" is a destination.
Both Matot and Massei are Parshiot read during the Three Weeks -- both are lessons on galut. On the face of it, however, they seem to be different, even conflicting, insights into the nature and purpose of our exile. Matot instructs us on how the purpose of galut is to evoke in us the steadfastness and immobility of the branch-turned-rod. Massei, on the other hand, regards galut as a journey -- as movement, change and transformation.
Indeed, virtually everything in our existence is multifaceted, and "life" is the endeavor to navigate, rather than to eliminate, its paradoxes. If "sticking to your principles" and "changing the world" seem conflicting goals, so be it; we nevertheless pursue them both, exercising our judgment and sensitivity as to which of these objectives should be emphasized in a given circumstance. So one week we dwell on the Matot aspect of galut, regarding the challenges of its alien environment as something to resist and repel -- thereby strengthening our resistance and hardening our inner resolve. And the next week we focus on the Massei approach to exile, exploring the ways in which our interaction with our environment serves to elevate it and transform it into a holier and more Godly place.
But what happens when Matot and Massei unite into a single Torah-reading? Then the "directive of the week" is to integrate them both into a single approach to galut. "Living with the times" in such a week means discovering how your interaction with a hostile environment is not a challenge to your values and convictions, but their strengthening and their affirmation. It means discovering how your "toughness" and intractability in your faith is not a hindrance to achievement and creativity, but actually an aid in your endeavour to transform the corner of the world to which you have been dispatched on the mission to build a home for God.