Parashat Matot-Masei: Learning as We Go

Posted on July 9, 2021 by Jay Lavroff, Guest Darshan

This week we have a double portion: Matot, meaning Tribes, and Masei, meaning Journeys. We are at the end of B’midbar, the book of Numbers, and in the fortieth year of wandering in the desert.
This portion addresses diverse topics and makes for interesting reading. It begins with a list of laws relating to the making of vows, then moves through a military campaign, the allocation of land in Canaan among the tribes of Israel, and a movement by movement account of the journey of the Israelites, from the exodus from Egypt to the steppes of Moab, the very threshold of the promised land. The portion then returns to legal issues, including what constitutes murder, the proof needed to convict the accused, and the penalties. The portion ends with the epilogue to the story of the 5 daughters of Zelophedad, who as we know from last week’s portion had the gumption to seek justice by being allowed to inherit their father’s land when he died without a male heir. These brave women are identified by name, something rare in the Torah and evidence of their importance.
Of particular interest is the relevance of learning lessons. Up to this point we’ve seen many examples of why the Israelites should trust in God and his prophet Moses, and heed God’s word. Yet, we have also seen repeated instances of short memories and a lack of faith, and the often dire consequences. The golden calf. Aaron’s sons. The 10 out of 12 spies who reported that the promised land could not be occupied, causing an entire generation of doubters to be condemned to wander in the desert. Even Moses himself was not immune, being allowed only to see the promised land but not enter because, after being instructed by God to speak to the rock to draw water, he struck it instead.
It should perhaps therefore come as no surprise that in one of the more gruesome passages in the Torah, found here in Matot, Moses follows God’s directions literally when carrying out an act of bloody vengeance against unarmed prisoners of war. God tells Moses to send an Israelite army to exact severe retribution from the Midianites, who, you may remember from last week’s parsha, tricked the Israelites into worshiping their idols. The Israelite army kills every adult male Midianite, but takes as prisoners the Midianite women and children and returns with them, along with spoils of war. Upon seeing the prisoners Moses becomes angry with the commanders for sparing the women. He reminds them that it was the women who seduced the Israelite men to worship idols, and orders that all the male children and all the women who had had relations with Israelite men also be slain, and they are. This sounds brutal and inhumane, and of course it is. But after 40 years of wandering and experiencing the punishment for defying God’s decree, who would have had the chutzpah to disobey explicit instructions?
Clearly we are a long way from Abraham arguing on behalf of Sodom.
While the slaughter of the Midianites is horrifying, the quandary of following orders without comment or question reaches a more positive conclusion at the end of this portion. The tribes of Gad and Reuben are cattle herders, and they observed that the lands outside Canaan were particularly well suited for raising cattle. They ask Moses if they can occupy these lands, rather than cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land with the rest of the community of Israel. Moses is furious because he perceives this as the Gadites and Reubenites defying God’s instruction by separating themselves from the community, and particularly allowing the rest of the Israelites to go to war to take the land while they do not. He is so angry that he recounts the story of the 12 spies and how their disloyalty resulted in having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years and the loss of an entire generation. Moses sternly warns that if they again hold back from following God, God will make them remain in the wilderness even longer and bring ruin upon the entire people.
However, disaster is avoided when the Gadites and Reubenites come up with a workable solution; one that very likely was the result of the hard lessons of simply ignoring God’s directives. They tell Moses that they will not take their share of the land in Canaan, but will stand ready to fight with the other Israelites when needed. In this way, they will obey God and fight to take the promised land, but also dwell in a place that is good for their way of living.
And so, at the end of the 40 year odyssey of wandering and hardship, it appears that slow learning is certainly better than no learning, and that our people are at last ready to enter the land that God has given.
Chazak! Chazak! Vanitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And may we all be strengthened!
Shabbat shalom,
Jay Lavroff