Matot and Mas’ei

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Matot: Building Our Lives, Sometimes the Wrong Way

Shaping Personal Obligations with Words

Tradition understands the commitment at Sinai to constitute an oath. The Torah lays out the fascinating option of creating a new Biblical obligation with an oath—a Jew who foreswears cigarettes, for example, has it become Biblically prohibited for him/her to smoke; or, a Jew can swear to do something, and also make it Biblically obligatory—but existing mitzvot are immune.

Should a Jew take an oath to prohibit him/herself from sitting in a sukkah, for example, it can only take any effect if the Jew names the item and prohibits it (saying “my lips shall be proscribed from partaking of matzah,” for example; the Jew has not tried to deny the obligation, only put in an obstruction. In practice, such a Jew must still eat matzah, s/he only has no way to do it without violating the vow. Unless s/he finds a way to have a Torah scholar nullify it).

Nedarim 8a thinks Tehillim 119;06—I have sworn, and will fulfill it, to observe your mitzvot—means oaths to keep the Torah are meaningful, le-zaruzei nafshei, to motivate. Ramban thinks the Gemara takes it as an appropriate psychological tool rather than a binding vow. To him, Jews’ having sworn at Sinai to fulfill the Torah prevents any other verbal commitment from taking effect, either to add to or take away from that original oath.

Words are powerful, but cannot affect pre-existing Biblical commitments.

A Voidable Power

In general, though, we are to be faithful to what we promise. Not to violates lo yahel, 30;3, the verb related to the word hol or hullin, to make mundane. Onkelos instead wrote lo yevatel, must not render null. He uses the same word in 30;9, where the verse spoke of a husband’s right to invalidate some oaths his wife might take. The Torah called what the husband would do ve-hefer, and Onkelos again used the root of batel.

For Onkelos, batel translated many other verbs as well. In Shemot 5;4, where Par’oh objects to Moshe and Aharon’s pulling the people away from their work, being shovet them from their toils, Onkelos writes batel (he many times in the Torah translates the root for shavat as batel, although the day of Shabbat is shabbata); 5;8, responding to the people’s complaints about newly harsh working conditions, Par’oh tells them they are nirpin, shirkers; 5;9, he tells them not to be involved with divrei sheker, false matters. In each case, Onkelos uses a version of batel.

Onkelos also does it for verbs such as paru’aShemot 32;25, the word the Torah uses to describe the people after the Golden Calf; yippeluBamidbar 6;12 word for the nazir’s having to start his/her count of days over again should the nazir become ritually impure, and the first days fall away. Endings, sapping of power, losing meaning, are all a matter of bittul for Onkelos, and we are told not to let that happen to our vows.

In a section of the Torah that grants words the power to create Biblical obligations or prohibitions, Onkelos uses a word he found useful in multiple contexts.

The Power of Bittul

In some circumstances, a father, husband, or Torah scholar can make the vow or oath go away. For the father or husband, the Torah uses the verb hefer, nullify, where the Torah scholar’s verb (only hinted at in the Torah itself) is hitir, to loose or permit. Rashi to 30;2 notes Moshe Rabbenu’s saying zeh ha-davar, this is the matter, to introduce the topic, then says the Torah means us to know the need for exact language in dispensing a vow. Were a Torah scholar to say the vow is mufar, or the father or husband to say mutar, their words would be ineffective, the vow still in force.

When I first shared thoughts on this Rashi, I suggested this reading links to his first one, where he noted Moshe used the language of zeh ha-davar, this is the matter, and other prophets used koh amar Hashem, thus said Gd. While Rashi does not elaborate, I suggested (for reasons I am skipping this time around) zeh ha-davar alluded to the greater exactness of Moshe’s prophecy in presenting the word of Gd. If so, his note here, the words of nullification must be exact, fit well.

Bad Faith Is Rarely a Good Idea

The husband’s power can be misused. 30;16 discusses a husband who says he uprooted his wife’s vow when he really waited beyond the one day the Torah allotted, meaning the vow remains in effect. However, should she violate it, the sin is his, because he told her the vow had been uprooted. Rashi generalizes the point, a Jew who causes another to sin without the latter one realizing it bears all the culpability.

Ramban adds the reminder this is only true if she did not know what he had done. Should she be aware enough of the laws of oaths to realize his attempt was ineffective, her violation would then be hers, and the husband would bear responsibility only for his failure to try to avert her transgression.

On the flip side, should he have effectively nullified the oath without her knowledge—so she is not now technically bound by it, although she does not know that—will mean she needs Gd’s forgiveness if she acts in ways the oath prohibited. To use Rashi’s example, if she vowed to be a nezirah, a status that includes a promise not to eat any grape product, he nullifies it without her knowing it, 30;6 tells us she needs Gd’s forgiveness if she ate grapes or drank wine before learning of his hafarah.

Gd allows us to shape our worlds much more than we might have imagined. The world of Torah and mitzvot is fixedly obligatory, meant to be immune to our oaths or vows, although we can cause ourselves problems in obeying the Torah. Everywhere else, we can take oaths or vows, have them nullified by the proper authority, as long as they follow the appropriate procedure, and are then only liable if we knowingly or maliciously decide to ignore that vow or oath.          

War Against Midian

The next big event in Matot starts with Gd’s command to wage war against Midian for their role in the Ba’al Pe’or tragedy. The Torah calls it nekama, 31;2, usually translated as vengeance. Onkelos instead writes itpera puranut, punish. We might think (as ArtScroll suggests) Onkelos avoided vengeance because it seems beneath Gd, as it were, to do something as human as take revenge. However, when verse three has Moshe call the people to raise an army to put nikmat Hashem on Midian, Onkelos switches it to pur’anut din amei de-Hashem, the army is going to punish the Midianites as owed to the nation of Gd. In the realm of people, I would have thought Onkelos would feel comfortable speaking of vengeance.

He seems to me to suggest Gd wanted Moshe and the Jews to approach this “vengeance” as repaying a wrong with appropriate or necessary consequences. It counts as nekama because the word means retribution; most retribution comes with a revenge motive. Onkelos wanted us to know the Jews were being told to be only the vehicles of proper punishment, not of a search for revenge.

How Low the Jews Had Sunk

The Jews win the war, and bring back plunder, including women. Moshe is angered by their doing so, since hen hena, they themselves, were the women who followed Bilam’s advice and seduced Jewish men to both fornication and idolatry. Rashi, 31;16, expands our sense of how bad matters had gotten. He takes hen hena as more specific identifiers than we might realize, that everyone in the nation knew which of these women had slept with which Jewish men.

The idea minimally means the relationships happened out in the open, so everyone knew who had paired up with whom. For everyone to know who was with whom, though, he seems to me to mean the relationships were also longstanding enough to become well known. (It may be that at a wild party, people remember who paired off together; at a national level, where Moshe himself knows it, I think the idea would have to be they were together for some extended period.)

It is bad enough to think the Midianites briefly lured Jews into improper encounters, including idolatry. Rashi seems to think it was worse than that.

The Nation’s Relationship to Moshe

In either version, Moshe Rabbenu apparently did not have the power to stop the events as they occurred. He saw this happening and could not stop it. Yet when the people heard Moshe would be taken from them after this war, 31;3, Rashi infers from the passive verb the Torah uses for the draft to mean they resisted having to go, not wanting to hasten Moshe’s death.

Rashi contrasts it to Shemot 17;4, where Moshe worried the people were about to stone him. When they hear of his imminent passing, they realize what they have, appreciate the great gift, and do not want to allow him to be taken from them. Rashi presents it as a positive quality, the people’s recognition of the greatness of their leaders. I see the other side, their not seeing that greatness, not fully heeding that leader, until it’s time for him to go.

Matot shows us ways the Torah carved out room for Jews to shape their own lives of permitted and prohibited, then takes us to a war to punish the Midianites for luring the Jews away from their leader’s ideals, a leader they now know they are about to lose.


Parshat Mas’ei: The Land of Israel

For me, a still-unhealed casualty of the pandemic has been confidence today’s Israelis really think of me and Jews like me—still enchained in the diaspora—as their brethren. The decision to exclude non-citizens (other than those with political pull or influence), continuing still as I write because of a recent uptick in cases of the novel coronavirus, has made clear Israelis’ appeals for help from Jews abroad, invoking our unity, as if we are all in this together, stopped as soon as they felt it would hurt them.

It’s a hurt that will not soon go away, and is part of why I focus here on the Torah’s views of the Land of Israel in Parshat Mas’ei.

The Irresistibility of Cultural Influence

Gd assigned the Jews the task of ridding the Land of the various abominations of worship the Canaanites had placed there. Among them, the verse speaks of maskiyotam, 33;52, a word Rashi takes to mean stones on which the Canaanites prostrated. Onkelos wrote beit segadatehon, their houses of bowing. I think he implies the Torah was telling Jews to destroy the entire structure where wrongful worship occurred, more than just the particular place of such worship.

The Jews were also to rid the Land of the Canaanites themselves, with the Torah using the word ve-horashtem, 33;52. According to Rashi and English translations, it means to drive out or expel the inhabitants. The Torah uses the same exact word in the next verse about the Land, ve-horashtem the Land. English translations pivot to, take possession, where Rashi thinks the Torah is linking successful possession of the Land to expelling the prior inhabitants. Leaving any over, 33;55 says, will work out badly for the Jews.

The idea of forced migration is distinctly unpopular today, a war crime. We may no longer have to worry about it, because any non-Jews in Israel or its surrounding areas today are not Canaanites, and the Torah’s rule might have applied in full only to them.

Still, Onkelos’ idea of destroying their houses of worship in addition to the places of the actual odious worship and Rashi’s point about the connection between driving the Canaanites out and developing a firm hold on the Land raises a question I think we still need to answer, regardless of whether this particular solution of the Torah’s is in full force today: how do we build a Land (and one day, Kingdom) of Israel where Jews are not prey to the lure of intuitively attractive modes of behavior?

I am less focused on the answer—because many Torah scholars discuss this in more detail than I could here—than in recognizing the question. Grant that we need not expel non-Jews because they are not Canaanites, how do we avoid the problem Rashi named, having them among us historically leads us to act like them?

It’s a first question for the Jews as they go to conquer the Land.

Mitzvah to Live There

The second use of the word ve-horashtem, take possession, told Ramban there was and is a Biblical commandment to live there. On 33;53 and again in his glosses on Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Ramban assumes the call to conquer and take possession of the Land implicates all Jews throughout history. The verse finishes with a reminder Gd had given us the land to make the point any choice not to live there constitutes a spurning of Gd’s gift.  Rambam does not count settling in Israel as a mitzvah, for reasons debated ever since he published his Mishneh Torah. Yet he does include many ideas praising living in Israel in chapter five of Laws of Kings.

The question has become political today, both because the people who emphasize the obligation often come with other political attachments (like particular versions of Zionism) and because many Jews still live outside of Israel, for reasons good and bad. (And for those who contemplate moving there, I can attest from personal experience the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency do not make it easy. They want to be sure we fulfill the Gemara’s idea that the Land of Israel is acquired only with suffering.)

Our Leaders Apportion the Land for Us

For those who accept Ramban’s idea of a requirement to live there, the Torah implies we would have less choice of where to live than most of us are currently accustomed. In the procedure for apportioning the Land, the Torah gives the borders and names the heads of the tribes who will oversee the division. It identifies these men, 34;17, as those asher yinhalu lachem, who will divide (or assign) the Land.

As Rashi points out, they will act on behalf of their tribes, family clans, and individuals. Jews were then told which section of the Land was theirs, determined by their tribal leader. Those leaders may have taken counsel with others before parceling it out, but there does not seem any necessity they do.

It’s one example among many of the roles leaders are supposed to play in the Jewish people, where they lead and we follow, not that we tell them what to do or they are expected to heed our will.

Geography and Character

In some cases, the choice has more impact than we might realize. Rashi notices there will be three cities of refuge on each side of the Jordan, despite only two and a half tribes living on one side and nine and a half on the other. Quoting Abbaye from Makkot 10a, Rashi says the land of Gilead is full of murderers, as attested by Hoshea 6;8.

Neither Rashi nor Abbaye seem bothered by Hoshea’s prophecy having come centuries after the Torah was given. They take Hoshea’s words as enunciating a characteristic of the region, I think. (We might say Hoshea described a reality of his time and Abbaye thought Gd put in extra cities of refuge there for that future time. That sounds like an excessive solution to me, to set aside cities of refuge in perpetuity because of one particular era, unless we think Gilead would be soaked in blood in many eras.)

The idea also ignores the fact that cities of refuge harbor only unwitting murderers. Those who kill intentionally or deliberately, regardless of whether a court will convict and/or punish, would not be allowed to stay in such cities. If so, Gilead’s being soaked in blood—a phrase that sounds like intentional murder—should be irrelevant to the issue of cities of refuge.

To me, their comment implies unwitting murder happens where there is already a lot of witting or deliberate murder. In societies that care about human life, there will also be less unintentional killing, because people know to be careful. Where murder is not a big deal, accidental murder happens more often as well.

Ramban noticed some of the issues I have raised here, and said Hoshea indeed was identifying an inherent characteristic of Gil’ad, people who live there are more prone to killing. He then offers a more technical answer, the placement of cities of refuge was a matter of distance, to always have a place nearby for an unwitting murderer to get to before the avenging relative caught up with him/her. The distances of Gil’ad called for more cities, even if they would have been used less often.

Cities of Refuge or of Levi’im?

Before he linked the number of cities to distance, Ramban expressed surprise at the question, because there were forty-eight cities of Levi’im in total, four for each tribe. Although there were only six arei miklat , cities designated as cities of refuge, all Levitical cities could absorb these unwitting murderers (Ramban glosses over halachic differences between the two types of cities, focused on the bottom line, they all were places an unwitting murderer would find protection from the go’el ha-dam, the blood-avenging relative).

For Ramban, the key element of the cities was the protection. So long as the unwitting murderer had any such city accessible, Abbaye did not need to ask his question. (I think Abbaye would answer there’s more to it, arei miklat have more services for such murderers than do other Levitical cities, making it more preferable for a murderer to go there, re-posing the question.)

The Torah lays down rules for the physical layout of these cities as well. They are required to have a migrash, an open area, for vehemtam and kol hayatam., 35;3. Rashi thinks the latter phrase means all their living needs, a reading helped by the intervening word rechusham, their possessions. Onkelos, though, treats hayatam as another version of animals, heivatehon, in contrast to be’irehon for vehemtam. The migrash would be both for the domesticated animals people owned as well as animals that would come from outside the settlement and partake of these fields.

In the cities of the Levi’im, at least, Onkelos sees the people living in great enough harmony with nature to have a relationship with animals they do not own in any way, those animals, too, benefitting from the people leaving the space undeveloped.

Mas’ei tells us to make the Land of Israel a place of only proper culture, completely ridding it of pernicious influences, to accept a mitzvah to live there, in an area that might be determined for us by our leaders, and to set aside places for Levi’im to be able to help unwitting murderers and to live in harmony with nature.

About Gidon Rothstein

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