PARASHAT MATTOT-MASEY - BIRKAT HAHODESH
July 22, 2006 – 26 Tammuz 5766
Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 32:1 – 33:49 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 707)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 (Etz Hayim, p. 973; Hertz p. 725)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This long double portion begins with laws about vows. People must fulfill vows they make. However, a father has the legal right to annul a vow made by his minor daughter and a husband has the right to annul vows made by his wife. A single adult woman, a widow, or a divorcee must stand by her vows. This section, giving husbands power over wives, was based on the concept of shalom bayit – peace in the home – but clearly it goes against contemporary ethical values.
The Israelites carry out a war of vengeance against the Midianites. It is a vicious war that include killing all the men and taking a large amount of booty. Moses becomes angry that the women were captured alive; it was the women who tempted Israel into sexual promiscuity. This section of the Torah, with its largescale slaughter of all the men and all the women who have had sexual relations, is one of the most difficult for moderns to fathom. We clearly must study certain sections of the Torah in the context of their own time. Moses takes a census of the spoil and teaches the procedure for purification of everything taken from the Midianites.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad (and later half the tribe of Manasseh) like the land on the east side of the Jordan River as an area for cattle. They ask to settle there rather than crossing the Jordan and settling in Canaan with the other tribes. Moses answers that it will undermine morale of the other tribes if they stay behind. The 2 ½ tribes agree to leave their cattle and children behind and join the other Israelites to conquer the land, but afterward they will come back and settle in the east.
The portion Masey begins with a careful mention of each of the Israelites’ stops as they wander in the desert for 40 years. The borders of the Promised Land are carefully delineated. Cities were set aside for the tribe of Levi. In addition, six cities of refuge are set up; someone who accidentally commits manslaughter can flee there. There he would remain until the death of the High Priest; there he would be safe from vengeful family members. However, someone who deliberately commits murder is put to death based on the testimony of two witnesses. At the end of the portion we return to the daughters of Zelophehad. They are allowed to inherit, but they must marry within their own tribe so that their land remains within the tribe’s inheritance.
Issue #1 - Two Kinds of Killing
“You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee” (Numbers 35:11)
- In Torah times, when a person deliberately and intentionally murders another, the family was permitted to seek revenge. The death penalty was invoked for a deliberate murder. The death of the murderer serves as atonement for the death of the victim. Eventually such executions were carried out by the state rather than by the family of the victim. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmud made it all but impossible to carry out the death penalty in practice, although the law allowing executions remained in place. Why did the rabbis make it all but impossible to carry out the death penalty in practice?
- On the other hand, what if someone kills someone unwittingly, without malice, through negligence? Cities of refuge were established so that the perpetrator could escape the vengeance of the victim's family. Even an unintended death mars God’s presence in the world and requires some kind of atonement. Accidental killing requires some kind of reparation. Why must the perpetrator dwell in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest of that generation?
- There are two possibilities when a person is killed. One is that an innocent person has been killed deliberately, with forethought and malice; that is murder. The other is an unintentional death, whether through negligence, accident, or simply lack of care. Both are considered serious crimes that need atonement. Both mar God’s presence in the world. Yet they are not moral equivalents. Does that difference seem appropriate? Is one scenario more complex morally than the other?
- Is there a difference between a terrorist killing civilians and the accidental killing of civilians during a military action? Does the nature of the war have any affect on that difference?
Issue #2 – Memories of Love
“These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 33:1)
- Stop by stop, the beginning of parashat Masey lists the various encampments of the Israelites as they wander through the wilderness. Each resting place is carefully recounted. The midrash gives a reason why. Imagine a king who took his sick son on a journey to try to find a cure for an illness. Later, when the son is cured and grown up, the king lovingly recalls each of the places on their journey. Recalling the journey becomes a moment of shared love between the king and his son. So, too, in our portion, the sharing of this journey becomes a moment of shared love between God and the people Israel. God recalls God’s love for us by recalling the places of our journey.
- Do you have such memories of shared love between you and significant others in your life? How do you save these memories – pictures, videos, journals? Do you share them? Has modern technology made these memories easier or more difficult to keep?
- What happens to such memories when there is divorce, estrangement, or family breakup? When we break up with a loved one, we break up not only with our present but with our past. All those family pictures, those family memories, may lose their joy. Recalling family vacations or trips to Disney world is no longer something totally joyous. B’nai mitzvah and wedding pictures lose their appeal. It is easier to forget. People throw family pictures away. People tell me that they have lost something precious.
- The breakup of a family is also the loss of a shared past. How can we rebuild after such a loss?