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Torah Sparks

July 17, 2004 – 28 Tammuz 5764

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

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Sedra Statistics

The Torah reading of Mattot contains 112 verses.

It is also the basis of 2 of the 613 mitzvot.

The second reading of Torah in this double parasha Shabbat is Maasey, which contains 132 verses.

Maasey is the foundation for 6 of the mitzvot.

Torah Topics

Mattot is a term for “tribe” as Moses begins his oratory by speaking to the assembled tribal leadership about the value of words. Oaths and vows are sacred pledges, which involve status and obligation, and responsibilities, which are to be maintained. The Torah reading then continues to fulfill a mission to battle the Midianites who were responsible for massive Israelite transgressions and immorality (Numbers 25). Military discipline and morality as well as ethics of war are derived from these verses.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad seek to remain in the land east of the Jordan River as their tribal inheritance. Moses reminds them of morale and the need for unity in a time of conflict. Moses explores these issues and discerns a path by which these tribes may settle in the areas that they seek to live in, as well as contribute contingents to the forces that will conquer the Land of Israel. Half of the tribe of Manashe also settles here as well.

Maasey means journeys and provides a detailed itinerary naming each of the forty-two places where the Israelites sojourned during the wilderness wanderings. A point of scribal tradition is derived from this Torah reading. It is customary (though not obligatory) for a sofer -- Torah scribe -- to write a Torah scroll in a fashion so that each column of the Sefer Torah scroll has 42 lines. In this manner, each column of Torah becomes a Jewish journey linking the past to the present and the Torah as our guide in visioning our own journeys into enriching and engaging Jewish experiences.

The issue of the Daughters of Zelpohad is revisited. Their voices have been heard and they clearly do inherit their fathers' territorial allotment. However the land must remain within their tribal boundaries in order to maintain the tribal territorial integrity.

The double feature of Mattot and Maasey concludes with the admonition that these are the commandments, which God has decreed to Moses and the Israelites in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan, by Jericho. The final word of the Book of Numbers is Jericho, which is the foreshadowing that Deuteronomy will take place by this city as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. Each book of the Torah is concluded with the congregation rising prior to the final verse of Torah in anticipation of proclaiming, Hazzak, hazzak v'nithazzaik -- be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened (by the words and mitzvot of Torah).

Word of the Week

Halutz is used in contemporary Hebrew as a pioneer. The halutzim were Jews, inspired by Zionism who made the return to the land possible in modern times. The halutzim drained the swamps of the Galil region, settled the Negev and had the daring courage and visionary creativity of rebuilding a Jewish presence in the land from Rishon Le-Tziyyon to Sde Boker. The spirit of those original pioneers to Israel in the late 1800's and early 1900's is found in the synergy of modern Israel, in Israeli folk songs and kibbutzim and cultivated in youth programs (USY) and summer camps (Ramah).

In the Numbers 32:21 the word halutz appears and conveys the meaning of shock troops or warriors. The tribes of Reuven and Gad who seek to settle on the Eastern side of the Jordan River are told to contribute fighting forces for the conquest of the Land on the Western side of the Jordan. In this fashion, all of the tribes will recognize that the conquest of the Promised Land is a shared endeavor, and that each tribe is responsible for the other. Furthermore, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, in exchange for residing on the Eastern banks of the Jordan, are to contribute the halutzim -- the vanguard fighting forces which will lead the way into the Promised Land.

Sedra Spark #1 - Jewish Neighborhoods

Chapter 32 presents a highly charged issue masked in diplomatic language. The tribes of Reuven and Gad have a simple request as they herd cattle and the lands east of the Jordan River are perfect pastureland. In making this request, Moses fears that the sight of some tribes settling in homes before entering the land would be interpreted as forsaking the entire mission of the gift of the Land of Israel and demoralize the other tribes. Moses is able to deftly co-opt the two tribes into not only contributing men for the conquest of the Land of Israel, but their troops become the vanguard of the military operations as noted with the word halutz.

Interestingly, the two tribes state, "pens for the flocks we will build here for our livestock and cities for our children.” Moses, in response, after settling the fact that they will contribute the leading shock troops for the conquest, offers a subtle rebuke and states, “Build for yourselves cities for your children and pens for your livestock."

Rashi states, “They evince more concern for their own money than their children as they placed their cattle before their little ones. Moses said to them, “Do not do this! Put first things first and second things second! Build first cities for your little ones and afterwards, folds for your sheep!”

The Midrash adds that since Reuven and Gad mentioned their wealth and possessions before their children, they would find no blessings in the wealth.

Nehama Leibowitz, agifted Biblical scholar who lived in Israel in the 20th century, speaks of "two diametrically opposed points of view. There were those whose interests revolved round material possessions, concern for the cattle, who lived on bread alone and saw not the hand of God. In contrast to them, stood the one who, never for a moment, forgot the Divine mission."

Torah Table Talk

  1. Reuven and Gad focused on tangible wealth -- while Moses reminds them of their true blessings as he re-arranges their priorities in the precise choice of his word order -- which the children come first! What are our priorities? How do we help someone, or a community reorient and refocus on their core mission and central values?
  2. The two and one-half tribes are given permission to reside in the Eastern Jordan region. Can one help support and build Israel from the outside? If so, how can this mission be accomplished? What are our obligations and responsibilities towards Israel -- as advocates, supporters, donors and dreamers?

Sedra Spark #2

The second part of our double feature of Torah commences with a detailed itinerary listing each of the 42 places in our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. This appears to be redundant minutiae and numbingly focused on obscure locales. Why does chapter 33 list each and every place on the journey?

Ibn Ezra, our 12th century Biblical sage and worldwide traveler as well, noted that the Torah states in 33:2 that Moses wrote their goings forth according to their journeys. This apparent redundant text is as if to say that each stage of the journey was not happenstance or trivial travels. God, Ibn Ezra maintains, scripted the journey to inculcate values at every stage of the journey.

Rashi, writing in the 11th century in France and Germany, notes that each locale is listed "in order to publicize the loving acts of God". It is, in modern parlance, when returning from a spectacular vacation, even the name of each place visited lovingly conjures up brilliant images and indelible memories. Rashi is demonstrating that these named sites as articulated give voice to the everlasting love of God towards the Israelites at every moment and in every place in their journeys.

Rashi also cites a Midrash from Rabbi Tanhuma in that this chapter can be compared to a parable. To a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure. As soon as they returned home, the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him, here we slept, here we caught cold, and here you were ill. So too, the Holy One said to him, Moses: enumerate all the places where we have been…

A commentary on Rashi, the Be'er Heitev notes, “This was the lesson learned from recounting: to know how many had survived… to take to heart the kindness shown by the Holy One, and also the sufferings they endured for their disobedience so that, in the future they would act in righteousness and not sin.

Torah Table Talk

  1. How does recalling the past enable us to live now and influence our future?
  2. What journeys in our life have forged our future? Reflect upon physical journeys that can be measured in miles and upon soulful journeys that are measured by intense meaning.
  3. One place is missing from the 42 locales -- Mt. Sinai! Why the omission of the moment of theophany when God revealed the Torah to our people? Can Torah be given in only one place and one time? How do we understand this revised itinerary?

Torah Q & A

  1. Who is the Cohen Gadol (lead Cohen) in this narrative?
  2. In the travelogue of Maasey, as our ancestors leave Raamses in Egypt, what are the Egyptians doing?
  3. The Sea of Galilee is located in the north of Israel with Tiberias as a major city alongside that sea. What does the Torah call the Sea of Galilee?

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