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Torah Sparks

Parashi-ot Matot-Masei
July 6, 2013 – 28 Tammuz 5773

Annual: Numbers 30:2-36:13 (Etz Hayim p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 33:50-36:13 (Etz Hayim p. 957; Hertz p. 716)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (A), 4:1-2 (S): (Etz Hayim p. 973; Hertz p. 725)

Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek!

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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 twelve tribes to attack the Midianites in retribution for their earlier idolatrous 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: The tribes in question will be permitted to settle east of the Jordan, provided they serve as a vanguard in Israel's campaign of conquest.

Parashat Masei begins by detailing the Israelites' travels through the wilderness, beginning with Raamses in Egypt and concluding at the steppes of Moab, some five miles from the Jordan. The next stage of this long journey is to cross the Jordan, into 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; 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 might otherwise 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. The "man-slayer" can be released and is no longer liable to lawful vengeance only upon the death of the high priest. 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 where 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: "Shall we not revenge?"

"Moses spoke to the people, saying, 'Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian.'" (Numbers 31:3 – Matot)

Derash: Study

"Any battle waged in the cause of Judaism must be entirely 'in the name of heaven,' devoid of thoughts of personal gain or honor. There is some evil inherent in any fight, but when that fight is motivated by pure and honest intentions, for the sake of the honor of heaven, there is no harm in that. However, if the motives behind the fight are not sincere, it can do no good but only harm." (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, Avnei Ezel)

"The preceding verse refers to Israel's vengeance on Midian; this verse speaks of God's vengeance on Midian. Both mean the same thing. The cause of Israel is the cause of God. 'Vengeance' is here used in the broad sense of retributory punishment." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"The Israelites seek redress or compensation from the Midianites for causing the devastating plague of Baal-peor, but the Lord desires to exact retribution from them for the sacrilege they committed by seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal-peor." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

"Before we can cross into the Promised Land, we must be prepared to defend a different kind of boundary. This is not a boundary of valleys, rivers, and streams, but of moral codes, of laws that say what is right and what is wrong. It is a spiritual boundary that says there is only one God and that the greatest transgression of all – the worst boundary crossing of them all – is idolatry… For the sake of our wives, our sisters, our parents now gone, and especially for our children and our children's children, join me in this campaign to wipe out the Midianites once and for all." (Doug Barden)

"Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged." (Samuel Johnson)

"Nothing is more costly, nothing more sterile than vengeance." (Winston Churchill)

"Vengeance has no foresight." (Napoleon Bonaparte)

Questions for Discussion

Is it possible, as Avnei Ezel asserts, to assure the purity of human motives even in a fight "for the honor of heaven"? As you weigh his words, please note that Rabbi Friedman was a Polish rabbi confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, who was subsequently deported and killed in a Nazi death camp in 1943.

Etz Hayim seems to say that God's reasons for commanding the campaign against Midian were quite different from those that motivated the Israelites carrying out the divine mission. Is this unavoidable? Or is it an indictment of the Israelites' moral case in attacking the enemy?

Rabbi Hertz wrote at the very beginning of the twentieth century. How has the century since his comment, including the founding and flourishing of a sovereign Jewish State of Israel, effected the force of his comment that "the cause of Israel is the cause of God"? Is Hertz's definition of vengeance convincing? What concern does this definition reflect? How do Churchill and Bonaparte's comments relate to our verse and to the war on Midian?

Does (Executive Director of Men of Reform Judaism) Doug Barden's imaginative address to Israelite warriors explain the intent of the campaign? Does it provide a moral grounding for the devastating attack on Midian? What "spiritual boundaries" are most in need of our vigilant defense today?

Theme #2: "Grave witnesses of true experience"

"If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may be executed only on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death." (Numbers 35:30 – Masei)

Study: Derash

"It is not only the gravity of the situation for the suspect that demands verifiable testimony but also the risk to the community, lest it mistakenly condemn itself to death for permitting the shedding of more innocent blood." (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women's Commentary)

"'By witnesses shall the murderer be murdered.' The verb ratsah reaches its longest semantic stretch here when it is used in the sense of 'execute' – probably in order to underline the notion of measure-for-measure justice." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says that this extends to a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)

"It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." (Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Negative Commandment #290)

"Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country. And they happen for all the same reasons. Sloppy police work. Eyewitness identification is the most - is the worst type almost. Because it's wrong about half the time. Think about that." (John Grisham)

Questions for Discussion

Consider the views recorded in Mishnah Makkot. Is rabbinic reluctance to impose the death penalty a subversion of our verse… or a logical continuation of the principles conveyed by the verse itself? How does Professor Alter's careful translation (referring to judicial execution as "murder") impact your view? Is this usage the "longest semantic stretch"… or the very point of the verse and its jurisprudential precautions (the same Hebrew root is, indeed, used to describe the execution and the crime being punished)?

Maimonides' 12th Century statement is usually credited to William Blackstone ("Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer;"1865) or Benjamin Franklin ("It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer;" 1885). What are the merits and limitations of this perspective? Does such penal perspicacity explain the regulations conveyed in our verse?

What Jewish core values are communicated by this verse (and by the rabbinic approach to capital cases)? Sanctity of life? A humility regarding the human capacity to ascertain the truth? The difficulty in finding objective, disinterested, reliable witnesses? The deleterious moral impact on the society that administers the death penalty?

Historic Note

Parashat Matot, read (together with Parashat Masei) on July 6, 2013, details the annihilation of Midianite forces – including five kings and Balaam ben Beor, in a decisive battle with the Israelites. On July 6, 1943 (seventy years ago today), the Battle of Kursk – between forces of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – continued into its second day. It remains both the largest series of armored clashes and the costliest single day of aerial warfare in history. It was the last strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount on the eastern front. Germany sustained some 25,000 casualties on this day alone (203,000 over the course of the entire battle).

Halachah L'Maaseh

Rosh Chodesh Av (Monday July 8, 2013) is the "Yahrzeit" of Aaron (see Numbers 33:38, Parashat Masei). It is the only Yahrzeit explicitly mentioned in the Torah. We observe Yahrzeit for loved ones on the Hebrew anniversary of their death (not burial) by reciting Kaddish in the presence of a minyan (and, if able, by leading those services), by lighting a memorial candle, and by acts of charity. If one forgets or misses a Yahrzeit, the observance should be marked when the omission is recalled (Kol Bo al Aveilut p. 394). If a loved one's date of death is unknown, one should select a date to be observed as a Yahrzeit (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 568, Beer Hetev, Magen Avraham ad loc; see also Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, pp. 294-295).

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