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Torah Sparks

July 21, 2012 – 2 Av 5772

Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 32:1 – 33:49 (Etz Hayim p. 949; Hertz p. 707)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4; 4:1 – 2 (Etz Hayim p. 973; Hertz p. 725)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Matot begins with a discussion of vows – their binding nature and their annulment under certain circumstances. A father may annul the vow of his young daughter, and a man has a brief window of opportunity to annul his wife’s vows – the day he learns of those commitments. Moses dispatches conscripts from all 12 tribes to attack the Midianites in retribution for their earlier idolotry and moral corruption of the men of Israel. The Midianites, including five kings and Balaam son of Beor, are annihilated; the Israelites suffer no casualties. The victorious Israelites return with spoils of war. Midianite cities and encampments are burnt. Moses orders all males among the young Midianite captives and all but the virgins among the women put to death. In gratitude for the safe return of all Israelite fighting men, military officers bring Moses an offering for God of the gold they had taken as booty. Rank-and-file soldiers are permitted to keep their share of the spoils. Moses and Eleazar accept the offering, and bring it to the Tent of Meeting “as a reminder” to the Israelites of God’s beneficence, and to God of Israel’s gratitude. The parashah concludes with a crisis averted. The tribes of Gad and Reuben – later joined by the half-tribe of Manasseh – ask Moses to permit them to settle on the east side of the Jordan. Moses at first understands this as a betrayal of the Israelite mission of conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, as well as an abdication of their tribal share in responsibility for Israel’s military efforts. A compromise is reached: Those tribes will be permitted to settle east of the Jordan, provided they serve as a vanguard of Israel’s campaign of conquest.

Parashat Masei begins by detailing the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness, beginning with Ramses in Egypt and concluding at the steppes of Moab, perhaps five miles from the Jordan. The next stage of this long journey is to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. God commands Israel to expel the inhabitants of Canaan and to destroy their idols and places of worship. Failure to do so will result in dire consequences. Additional instructions address allotment of the land among the tribes. The geographical features defining national frontiers are detailed. Both towns and pasturage are to be provided the Levites, who are not otherwise granted a tribal allotment. Forty-eight such towns are to be designated, among them six cities of refuge. These cities provide asylum to Israelites who unintentionally take a life. Once such a manslaughterer enters a city of refuge, he is safe from relatives of his victim, who otherwise might lawfully take the life of their loved one’s killer. The perpetrator is given asylum until his lack of malice is established by trial.

Should he leave the city of refuge, he is vulnerable to licit vengeance. No monetary compensation is permitted to secure release of the unintentional killer. It is only when the high priest dies, though, that the “man-slayer” can be released and is no longer liable to lawful vengeance. This, of course, is a period of unpredictable duration, dramatizing the vagaries of the human condition that led to the accidental killing. In addition to establishing the legal norm of trial and due process, parashat Masei distinguishes between unintended manslaughter and murder, which is established by the intent or malice of the perpetrator. The parashah concludes by revisiting the precedent of the daughters of Zelophehad, through whom Israelite women were granted inheritance rights when their fathers left no male heirs. Clan leaders within the tribe of Manasseh now object that the sisters, as property owners, will diminish their tribal allotment by marrying members of other Israelite tribes. At God’s instruction, Moses rules such heiresses must marry only within their own tribe, in order to safeguard the integrity of the tribal allotments within the land of Israel. The five sisters, accordingly, marry first cousins.

Theme #1: “What Doth It Prophet a Man?”

“Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.” (Numbers 31:8) [Matot]

Study: Derash

“Man’s first loyalty is to the moral law, to God. But that does not imply that the provoker to immorality, the misleader is free from responsibility. When therefore the retribution that overcame Balaam is alluded to – when he is slain in battle by the Israelites – his complicity in the sin of the Israelites is also referred to: ‘Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor (31:16).’” (Nehama Leibowitz)

“On his way back home, Balaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had committed harlotry with the daughters of Moab and had thereby been led into idolatry. He then realized that this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He therefore advised the Midianites to send their choicest maidens to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. In this way they would forfeit the Almighty’s protection.” (Shmuel David Luzzatto)

“When they caught Balaam, they slew him with the sword, saying, ‘You attacked us with our weapon, the tongue; we are attacking you with your weapon – the sword.” (Midrash Ha-Gadol Bemidbar)

“The Sanhedrin judged Balaam and put him to death.” (Yalkut Shimoni)

“They carried out all four death sentences against him: stoning, burning, slaying by the sword, and strangulation.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 106B)

Questions for Discussion

How is it that the prophet who intoned mah tovu – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” – meets with such an ignoble end at the hands of the very people he blessed? If he deserved such a death, why do we continue to quote his words of blessing so prominently in our liturgy?

What does it mean that the tongue – language – is the Jewish people’s weapon of choice? Is this description self-deprecating or flattering?

What concerns might be reflected in Yalkut Shimoni’s anachronistic assertion that Balaam stood trial before the Sanhedrin? How is this related to Tractate Sanhedrin’s bizarre description of his execution?

Did Balaam – who insisted that as a true prophet, he could only follow God’s prompting – undergo a change of heart or personal transformation that allowed him to conspire to undermine the Israelites’ well-being? What might explain this dramatic change in approach?

Borrowing Luzzatto’s phrase, what are the “sure methods of undermining Israel” – the Jewish people – in the 21st century? What is our most effective defense against (and response to) such efforts?

Theme #2: “Internment and Interment in Turn”

“They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month. It was on the morrow of the Passover offering that the Israelites started out defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians. The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord executed judgment on their gods.” (Numbers 33:3-4) [Masei]

Study: Derash

“The Egyptians were preoccupied with their grief.” (Rashi)

“Even though the Egyptians were burying their firstborn, and there was cause for concern that they might move to exact vengeance upon Israel, as they felt that they were responsible for their suffering, still the Israelites set out defiantly.” (Melechet Machashevet)

“Rejoice not when your enemy falls; let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased and divert His wrath from him to you.” (Proverbs 24:17-18; quoted as the favorite teaching of Shmuel Ha-Katan in Pirkei Avot 4:24)

“How beggarly appear arguments before a defiant deed!” (Walt Whitman)

“On a day of burial there is no perspective, for space itself is annihilated. Your dead friend is still a fragmentary being. The day you bury him is a day of chores and crowds, of hands false or true to be shaken, of the immediate cares of mourning. The dead friend will not really die until tomorrow, when silence is round you again. Then he will show himself complete, as he was – to tear himselfaway, as he was, from the substantial you. Only then will you cry out because of him who is leaving and whom you cannot detain.” (Antoine de Saint- Exupéry)

Questions for Discussion

Why does the Torah mention the burial of the first-born by the Egyptians? Why did Israel leave Egypt just as these funerary rites were being conducted? Because their former tormenters, “preoccupied with grief,” would not interfere with their departure (as Rashi suggests)? To demonstrate the Israelites’ complete confidence by leaving in a particularly provocative manner (a la Melechet Machashevet)? Because a dramatic gesture (see Whitman) was required to express Israelite defiance? As a strategy, to escape while Egyptians were in an emotional fog (see Saint Exupéry), still not realizing the scope of their losses?

Are the actions of the Israelites and especially the timing of their defiant departure inconsistent with the counsel of Proverbs and Shmuel Ha-Katan? When during recent history has this principle been best exemplified? When as it been most egregiously violated?

Was the Israelite departure purely an end in its own right, or was it designed still further to humiliate Egypt and its pharaoh? In what other ways has this goal been achieved in the biblical narrative?

We hold our Passover seders on the anniversary of the events descripted in these verses. What place should the Israelite defiance and Egyptian grief play in our discussions, ritual reenactments, and application of biblical paradigms to current events?

Historic Note

In Parashat Matot, read together with Parashat Masei on July 21, 2012, Moses orders Israelite troops to kill all Midianite men in response to their earlier moral corruption and idolatrous incitement of Israel. On July 21, 1973, in a covert operation in Norway known as the Lillehammer Affair, agents of Israel’s Mossad killed a waiter whom they mistakenly identified as a terrorist involved in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Halachah L’Maaseh

It is considered a mitzvah of great significance and urgency to accompany the dead to the grave by joining a funeral procession (See Talmud Berachot 18A, Ketubot 17B; Derech Eretz Zuta 89). It is proper to join any passing funeral procession, even that of a stranger or antagonist, accompanying the deceased for a minimum of four cubits (six to eight feet), and then to wait until the bier (or, today, the hearse) is no longer in sight (Leket Yosher 2:88; S’deh Chemed, Aveilut 190). One who neglects to do so commits an act of lo’eg la-rash – mocking the helpless, and is subject to nidui – a ban or anathema. If you are unable to join a funeral or the subsequent procession, at the time of the burial you should recite psalms, give charity, or pray for mercy on behalf of the deceased (Maavor Yabok, Siftei Ranenut 21).

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