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Parashat Mattot
July 19, 2014 – 21 Tammuz 5774

Annual (Numbers 30:2-32:42): Etz Hayim p. 941; Hertz p. 702
Triennial (Numbers 30:2-31:54): Etz Hayim p. 941; Hertz p. 702
Haftarah (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3): Etz Hayim p. 968; Hertz p. 710

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina


A vow made in God’s name must be fulfilled; one made by a woman can be cancelled by her husband or father, only on the day in which she makes the vow.

The Israelites rout the Midianite males in battle. At Moses’s behest, they return to kill the Midianite male children and the women who were not virgins. The fighters and their female captives are purified before entering the Israelite camp, and the spoils of victory are distributed – half each to those who fought, and to the other Israelites, with a special share given to the Levites.

The tribes of Gad and Reuben, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, request to settle east of the Jordan River so that their cattle would have ample room to roam. Moses allows this, provided that these 2½ tribes will fully assist the Israelite conquest of Canaan before they settle in their requested land.

Theme #1: Promises, Promises

If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Numbers 30:3)

The Israelites must take their promises very seriously. There are righteous men of whom we may believe that their words are uttered in accordance with the will of the Lord, that the Lord had spoken “thus;” i.e., as they had said it. But there are others where there is no need to “believe.” Once one hears their words, one can instinctively feel that this is the “actual word that God has spoken,” that the words they utter are truly Divine. This is the difference between the utterances of the other prophets and those of Moses. In the case of the other prophets in our history, there was cause to “believe” that their words could be justly prefaced with “Thus says the Lord;” that they had spoken in accordance with the will of God. But in the case of Moses, the Divine Presence actually “spoke from out of his throat.” All who heard that voice knew that this could be the word of none other than the Lord Himself. -- Noam Elimelekh

The power of the spoken word is holy. And the children of Israel were worthy of it by the power of the Torah [for it told them how to speak]. And throughout the 40 years that Moses, our teacher, was busy with them, he infused in them the power of the voice and the Hebrew language. For this reason they were commanded regarding the guarding of their utterances. -- S’fat Emet

“If a man makes a vow to the Lord …” Hence it is written, “And swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’ in sincerity, justice and righteousness - nations shall bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.” (Jeremiah 4:2) The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: “Do not imagine that you are permitted to swear by My name even in truth. You are not allowed to swear by My name unless you possess all the following attributes: “You must revere the Lord your God: only Him shall you worship, to Him shall you hold fast, and by His name shall you swear” (Deuteronomy 10:20). -- Numbers Rabbah 22:1

Questions for Discussion:

Noam Elimelekh comments on the remarkable power of speech, saying that, if a person is on a high spiritual level, it is as if his words are Divine. Why does a person’s eloquence move us in a way that few other things do? Can this be positive? Negative? Do we overrate the importance of someone speaking well? Does it take someone on the level of Moses to speak with Divine authority?

The S’fat Emet mentions that one of Moses’s great contributions to the words of the Torah is by infusing it with Hebrew. We often refer to Hebrew as lashon kodesh (holy tongue or language) because it is the original language of the Torah and most Jewish prayer. Are there other intangible ways that Hebrew brings us closer to our tradition? Is Hebrew’s impact because it is the language of Scripture and prayer? Is it more because modern Hebrew was intended to be the universal language of world Jewry?

Numbers Rabbah explains that mentioning God while making a promise must not be taken lightly. Is this because we need to be careful before including God in our vows? Or is it because bringing God into our vows puts God’s reputation on the line, potentially damaging God’s reputation if we do not follow through with our oaths? When our names are mentioned along with a person’s promises, is our reputation subject to review depending on whether the promise is fulfilled?

Theme #2: Zealot (the Sequel)

Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Pinhas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts. (Numbers 31:6)

The battle against the Midianites features a familiar face.

Pinhas … did possess a personal interest aside from the national cause. The Midianites had participated in the sale of his maternal ancestor Joseph, and, as Rashi explains, Pinhas was chosen to head this battle specifically due to the fact that he had to settle this issue. … [But] Pinhas was a person whose focus was totally directed toward [God]. He was completely devoid of any selfish considerations as he undertook his mission for [God]. Although there were personal benefits from his actions, he pursued his duties with pure motives and fully for the sake of the Jewish people. -- Rabbi Mordechai Rogow, Ateres Mordechai

[Rabbi Hanina] rejoined: You have said correctly; I personally have seen Balaam’s Chronicle, in which it is stated, “Balaam the lame was 33 years old when Pinhas the Robber killed him.” -- Sanhedrin 106b

Elisheva the daughter of Aminadav, [Aaron’s wife, witnessed] Pinhas her grandson as a Priest anointed for war. -- Leviticus Rabbah 20:2

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Mordechai Rogow insists that Pinhas is able to put aside his self-interest for the sake of serving Israel in battle against Midian. Of what we know about Pinhas, can we confidently say that this is true? When we serve on behalf of a group, is it always possible to ignore our personal concerns? Do our personal concerns impact out thinking even when we try to block them out?

In Sanhedrin, we find a passage claiming that it is Pinhas who personally kills Balaam in the battle against Midian, thus ensuring that Balaam would never again be a threat to the Israelites. Is it poetic justice that Pinhas and Balaam, two of the three principle characters in the Torah portion Balak, would meet during a battle for Israel’s survival? Does it help us understand the link between the story of Balak and Balaam -- which some might consider to be a side-show in the midst of the rest of the Torah -- and the Israelite experience in the wilderness?

Leviticus Rabbah refers to Pinhas with the title of “Priest anointed for war.” It seems that Pinhas’s great contribution to his people is less in the ritual aspects of the priesthood, than as a warrior intent on the people’s survival. How does this show that the institution of the Priesthood ensures that everyone contributes according to his strength? How can we guarantee that the institutions in which we are involved engage members according to their respective skills?

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