Sermons and Parsha'iot      Parshat Mattot-Massei: Numbers 30:2-36:13

    Matot-Massei is a double portion which completes the Book of Numbers. Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes ( in Hebrew, “matot”) regarding vows and obligations. If a man has made a promise to do something (a vow) or has made a promise that he will not do something (an obligation), he must keep his promise. If a woman has made a vow or an obligation, and her father (if she is still living in her father’s house) or her husband (if she is married) doesn’t object, she must keep her promises. If her father or husband does object, however, her promises are canceled. Widowed or divorced women must always keep their promises.

    Chapter 31 tells the long story of the Hebrews’ annihilation of the Midianites at the command of God. The Hebrews are absolutely victorious (they lose no soldiers!). They execute the five Midianite kings, as well as the prophet Balaam, but they bring back as spoils the children, women, and animals. Moses is angry at them for having spared the women who were responsible for enticing the Insraelite men to sin at Shittim. Accordingly, he ordered that all male children and non-virgin women be slaughtered. The booty is divided among all the Israelites, with a share reserved for the Lord.

    Because the Reubenites and Gadites had lots of cattle, they wanted to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan River, where there was extensive grazing. Moses became angry because he interpreted their request as a way for them to avoid crossing into the Promised Land and joining in the fight to obtain it. He compared them to the spies forty years earlier who had urged the people to refrain from invading the Promised Land. But they arrive at an agreement: So long as the men serve as shock troops (the Hebrew word is halutzim – in modern times, this word referred to the early Zionist pioneers who built up the land of Israel), once the land is conquered, they could return to their cattle on the eastern side of the Jordan.

    Parashat Massei (“itineraries”) recounts each of the 42 camps of the Israelites, from the time they left Egypt to when the stood across the River Jordan from Jericho. This listing is both a joyous recollection of God’s miracles along the trek, and a sobering reminder of Israel’s many rebellions along the way.

    God has Moses tell the people to designate forty-eight towns for the Levites, including six “cities of refuge” – safe havens for anyone who had unintentionally killed someone. Such a killer had to flee to one of these six cities where his case would be investigated.  If he was found guilty of intentional murder, he would be put to death. If, on the other hand, he was found guilty of unintentional manslaughter, he had to remain within the confines of the city until the death of the High Priest. If he tried to leave, the family of the person whom he had killed could kill him in revenge. And there is no way he could buy his way out. The text also emphasizes that there must be two witnesses to a murder for the killer to be put to death.

    Much of Chapters 34 and 35 consists of a description of the boundaries of the Land of Canaan.  In this vein, the portion ends with another incident concerning the daughters of Zelophechad. They were permitted to inherit land, but their tribe complained that should they marry out of the tribe, their husbands would inherit their tribe’s holdings. Moses, at God’s command, specified that the daughters of Zelophechad had to marry members of their own tribe. They did so, and the Book of Numbers ends.


    • The Orthodox laws concerning the fitness (kashrut) of eating vessels derive from the provisions of Numbers 31:21-23. They provide, for instance, that in order to kasher certain vessels, such as spits used in fire, these should be brought to white heat (“made to pass through the fire”); dishes and similar articles used in the preparation of hot liquid or moist food, should be made ritually pure through boiling water; and utensils used for cold food need only be soaked and rinsed. 

    • Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen (Israel 1906-1972) notes the curious omission of the revelation at Sinai in the account of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. The reason for the omission, he suggests, is that once the Torah was given, it became timeless and cut loose from any one place. Every moment is its moment; every place is its place. 

    • Only a person who had unintentionally killed another could seek shelter in a city of refuge. A midrash explains that Moses was particularly sensitive to the issue. Having unintentionally killed an Egyptian “he knew the feelings of a pursued man.” Numbers Rabbah 23:13 equates the establishment of the cities of refuge with God’s treatment of Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Although the Torah “for as soon as you eat it you shall die,” Adam and Eve were merely punished with banishment. Likewise, a person who unintentionally kills deserves God’s mercy. 

    Some Thoughts and Questions

    1. The text does not explain why the death of the High Priest would free a manslaughterer from the city of refuge – but Abarbanel, the Spanish commentator, does. The High Priest was a person who was very important, holy, and well-loved within the entire community of Israel. Once a blood-avenger realizes that even the High Priest cannot live forever, Abarbanel suggests that he would be “comforted for the death of his own kinsman by realizing that he is not alone in his grief.” Like the family of the High Priest, all families who experience the loss of a loved one mourn their loss. Recognizing this  fact of life enables us to share the grief of others, which can help bring healing. Discuss what friends, relatives, and members of your community have done to help when sickness, sadness or grief have occurred in your family. How does sharing your feelings with others who have experienced similar feelings help you? What things does your family do to help others in distress? Can you think of other things that you can do? 

    2. On the evening before Yom Kippur we recite the Kol Nidrei prayer. In it, we ask God to absolve us of all the vows, oaths, and promises that we will make to God between this Yom Kippur and the next. Thus, we begin Yom Kippur with admitting that even our best intentions can fall short of the mark. It is said that for sins against God, the day of Yom Kippur atones, but for sins against others, we must ask their forgiveness. Have you or members of your family practiced the tradition of apologizing to others on Yom Kippur? If you did, was it easy or difficult? If you haven’t, can you think of situations where you might want to do it this year? Has anyone ever asked you to forgive them for breaking promises? Did you forgive them? Jewish tradition instructs us not to withhold forgiveness if the apology is sincerely offered. 

    3. The adults in our families can be considered to be the leaders of our own “tribes.” Sometimes they make promises that, due to circumstances, they cannot keep. For example, your mom is late coming home because of traffic and you can’t meet your friends at the mall on time. Or your dad loses his job and tells your older brother that the family will no longer be able to pay for living in an apartment off campus this year. At these times, it is necessary for us to exercise some understanding for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the household. Talk about the sadness and disappointment (and anger) that you have felt when promises have been broken or when you haven’t been able to fulfill promises that you very much wanted to keep. Think of ways that your “tribe” can help each other at these times. 

    4. What is mercy? How do you show it? Can you cite some contemporary examples of people who have shown mercy? Why can’t we let people who have been wronged seek their own justice? Have you ever received a lighter punishment for a misdeed when you had been told that the penalty would be heavier?