Parshat Matot Masei 2018
We chug into the final chapters of Bamidbar, basically the last book of the Torah from Sinai (as Devarim was dictated by Moshe), and what do we have? A jumble. We have oaths taken by men and women. We have two and a half tribes leaving the race to enter the land toward which the whole nation has been marching (in circles) for 40 years. We have cities of refuge for cases of accidental manslaughter. We have a reprise of the story of Zelofchad’s daughters. We have a list of all 42 stations during the 40 year trek. It sounds like a clearance sale.
Maybe. After 40 years and so many events we have to end somewhere. But still, there is order.
Let’s think about what the years in the desert were supposed to accomplish, other than punishing those who were afraid to enter the land. The greatest task a rag-tag bunch could have is to become a cohesive unit, one with esprit de corps, mutual responsibility, rules and order. Overall we would have to say that the mission was accomplished.
That does not mean the people never strayed. We have seen that the one constant in the behavior of the Israelites is their desire to escape responsibility to God. On the other hand, there are rules, there is order, each tribe has its place and its function. When there are disagreements or problems, there is a judicial system where these can be aired and resolved.
And this is where our two parshot reveal their hidden message (yes, it IS hidden!) Some commentators have mentioned four types of ties in the parshot. I think there are five, which makes this a worthy conclusion to the main part of the Torah!
Let’s start with the most basic level of ties, between man and woman. This is the first chapter of the reading, where we are told about a man’s vows and a woman’s vows (when she is at home and when she is married or widowed or divorced). It’s true to that the women get the short end here, but the fact remains that there is personal, almost intimate, responsibility for assuring that vows are revoked or fulfilled.
We then have the story of two and a half tribes that decide that their corner of paradise is located east of the Jordan. For Moshe this was déjà vu spiked with heresy. Hadn’t he been forced to tramp the desert for 40 years because 10 of the 12 spies he had sent discouraged the people from entering the land. Moshe probably preceded Shakespeare in saying Et tu Brutus?
But this was not the first objection he voiced to the tribes. Will your brothers go forth to war and you’ll just sit here and live off the cream of the land? Responsibility of the tribe to the nation. That’s what Moshe emphasized, and then the potential damage they would cause if the rest of the Israelites followed their example. And there’s a solution – they’ll lead the charge, but only after they build homes for their wives and children.
Later on we have a chapter about cities of refuge. Cities of refuge are intended to protect individuals against others who want to kill them. We have here the responsibility of the general populace to the welfare of the individual who has done something bad – but accidentally. This is another form of responsibility, like welfare for the poor and needy, and justice for all – it helps to prevent unnecessary bloodshed.
Well, then what about the story of Zelofchad’s daughters? Why does it appear a second time? Last week we read how they complained that they were being legislated out of their inheritance – and God agreed. But here, their tribe complains: if they marry out, then THEY (as individuals) will have their legacy but WE (as a tribe) will lose land because it will go to their husbands’ tribes.
Here we have the classic struggle between individual and group rights. And God says, yes, you are both right. So what’s to be done? Each side gets something. The daughters can inherit land, but they should marry within the tribe (do we see a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet story developing between a man from Reuven and a woman from Menashe?). But, again, responsibility here is shared.
And finally, in case you lost count, this is number five, we have the relations between the nation and God, between God and the nation. This, of course, has been the basis of the whole Torah, but here we have the ties encapsulated in the string of 42 stations along the way. Some of them evoke memories of death and destruction. Others of redemption. Together, they reveal the intricate ties that have developed between God and the Israelites over 40 years, ties entailing responsibility (on both sides) and dedication to the success of the journey.
So there we have it. Two parshot that encapsulate five types of ties and responsibility: intimate family ties, ties between the tribes and the nation as a whole, ties between the nation and the individual, ties between the individual and the tribe, and ties between the nation and God, and God and the nation.
When all of these ties are strong, when each sector takes responsibility for itself and for the whole, we are strong. When any of the partners shirk responsibility, we all lose out and face the consequences of national weakness.
It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy in the desert and it certainly isn’t easy here, where everyone seems to have his or her own agenda. But together we must stand. The alternative – is not an alternative.