PARASHAT MATTOT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
July 30, 2005 - 23 Tammuz 5765
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 - 2:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710)
Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
The parasha begins with the rules governing vows and oaths. Any vow made by a man must be fulfilled completely. The Torah emphasizes the power of words. Any vow taken by a woman is subject to the acquiescence of either her father or husband at the time they learn of it. If either of them wishes, they may annul the vow and the woman is not held accountable. If no objection is raised at that moment the vow remains in force. Widows and divorced women can make vows that are binding upon themselves.
The Israelites go to war and defeat the Midianites, slaying their kings and adult males, destroying their towns and settlements, seizing their herds and wealth, and capturing all the women and children. Moshe is angry that the Israelite army spared all the woman because it was the Midianite women who were responsible for leading the Israelites into sin by worshipping Ba'al Peor. Moshe orders that all remaining males and all females who have had sexual relations be slain. The soldiers, captives and all booty are to remain outside the Israelite camp for seven days and go through the ritual of purification.
The spoils of war are divided equally, half to those who fought in battle and half to the community. From the community's portion, Moshe gives a share to the Levites for their service in the Tabernacle. The commanders of the army bring an offering before God in appreciation that none of their soldiers had fallen in battle and seeking atonement for having killed others in battle.
After initial reluctance, Moshe, Elazar and the elders of Israel agree to the proposal put forth by the leaders of Reuven and Gad. The two tribes will go into battle as the vanguard of the Israelite forces in return for receiving their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
Discussion Topic 1: This Land Is Our Land
The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses..., and said... "the land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us, "they continued, "if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan." Moshe replied to the Gadites and Reubenites, "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" (Numbers 32:1-6)
- They showed more concern for their own money than their sons and daughters, as they placed their cattle before their little ones. Said Moses to them, "Do not do so!" Put first things first and secondary things second! First build cities for your little ones and afterwards, pens for your sheep." (Rashi)
- Our Rabbis taught: In the case of the Reubenites and Gadites, you find that they were rich, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the land of Israel. Consequently, they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile as we read (I Chronicles 5:26), "And he carried them away even the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half tribe of Menassheh." What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions. From where can we infer this? From what is written in the Torah, "Now the children of Reuben had much cattle." (Abravanel)
- (At the end of Deuteronomy we will learn that Moshe's burial place will be in the area now being requested by the tribe of Gad. See Deuteronomy 33:21)
- They had a special connection to Horeb, and to our teacher Moshe, and they could not separate from him and therefore they wished to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan. (The Seer of Lublin)
- The intention of the Gadites and the Reubenites was to receive the lands of Sihon and Og as the portion due them in the land of Israel and by doing so sanctify the land of Sihon and Og with the sanctity of the land of Israel and as a result, that the edict that Moshe not enter the promised land be void for he would in the land of Sihon be in area now considered to be the land of Israel. (Hayyei HaRim)
- The commentators disagree about the motivation of the Gadites. With whom do you agree with and why?
- The interpretation offered in Hayyei HaRim suggests that the Gadites and Reubenites could by their actions redefine and extend the sacred area of the holy land. Are there implications of this view on the debate currently going on in Israel?
- Wealth and possessions are seen as having the potential to distort our sense of priorities. Is this an absolute? Or are there ways to insure we keep our true priorities straight?
Discussion Topic 2: Sacred Speech
"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)
- How is it that a person has the power to sanctify an object simply by speaking; to impart a fundamental change to its subject and new content simply by the utterance of the mouth? This can be explained following [the view] of Rabbi Yonah: "A person who guards his mouth, his mouth becomes a serving vessel and just as serving vessels impart sanctity similarly the words that leave his mouth sanctify [things]. (Rabbi Avraham of Sochsov)
- "He shall not break his pledge" -- His wordswill not be made ordinary (Rashi following the Tosefta). This is [based on] the principle that the speech of a Jew is holy, as the prophet Isaiah (43:21) said, "The people I formed for myself that they might declare my praise." (Rabbi Avraham of Sochsov)
- "He shall not break his pledge" -- He shall not make his words ordinary (Rashi). The principal is that the power of speech is holy and the children of Israel merited it on the strength of Torah. The entire forty years that Moshe dealt with them he inculcated them the power of speech and the sacred language and therefore commanded them regarding "guarding their words." (S'fat Emet)
- The section about not secularizing one's speech is placed immediately following the perpetual and additional sacrifices of last week's parasha for prayers replace sacrifices as it says, "Our lips shall fill the place of offerings." And with regard to Torah our sages taught (Menahot 110): "This is the Torah of the Olah (offering)... one who engages in Torah it is as if he brought an offering." And the verse, "the voice is the voice of Jacob" implies the voice of Torah and the voice of prayers. (S'fat Emet)
- Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul, and health to the body. (Proverbs 16:24)
- Words should be weighed, not counted. (Yiddish Proverb)
- Realizing the potency of our words, how might we change our patterns of speech?
- It is easy to perceive the sanctity of words when studying Torah or engaged in prayer. How do we insure that we do not make sacred text trivial and liturgy rote?
- How do we elevate and ennoble our daily vocabulary?
Discussion Topic 3: Do It Yourself
"Then they stepped up to him and said, 'We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites.'" (Numbers 32:16)
- There are those who think to themselves, "We are all descended from one and the same righteous individual. So despite the fact that we do not preoccupy ourselves with the Torah and we do not accumulate to our credit good deeds or fulfilled mitzvot, we will nonetheless merit all good things on account of that righteous man." To disabuse them of this sentiment, the Torah says, "We will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites and before God." In other words, "We will labor at the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot and not rely on the Torah study and mitzvot performed by our ancestors." (Abravanel)
- The meaning of the text is simple: Do you think that in the hour when "your brothers go to war," when enemies attack Israel, that you will sit here, that you will sit on the sidelines in tranquility and quiet? Do not even imagine such a thought, the war to defend Israel is a battle for survival that involves the entire nation, even those on the fringe. (Tiferet Y'honatan)
- Each commentary understands the battle to be fought differently. What role can we play in each of them?
- One text expects our participation while the other demands that we be leaders. How can we determine when we are needed to be leaders and when simply to follow the lead of others?