Torah Weekly

For the week ending 18 July 2015 / 2 Av 5775

Parshat Matot - Masei

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe teaches the rules and restrictions governing oaths and vows especially the role of a husband or father in either upholding or annulling a vow. Bnei Yisrael wage war against Midian. They kill the five Midianite kings, all the males and Bilaam. Moshe is upset that women were taken captive. They were catalysts for the immoral behavior of the Jewish People. He rebukes the officers. The spoils of war are counted and apportioned. The commanding officers report to Moshe that there was not one casualty among Bnei Yisrael. They bring an offering that is taken by Moshe and Elazar and placed in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting). The Tribes of Gad and Reuven, who own large quantities of livestock, petition Moshe to allow them to remain east of the Jordan and not enter the Land of Israel. They explain that the land east of the Jordan is quite suitable grazing land for their livestock. Moshe's initial response is that this request will discourage the rest of Bnei Yisrael, and that it is akin to the sin of the spies. They assure Moshe that they will first help conquer Israel, and only then will they go back to their homes on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moshe grants their request on condition that they uphold their part of the deal.


The Torah names all 42 encampments of Bnei Yisrael on their 40-year journey from the Exodus until the crossing of the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael. G-d commands Bnei Yisrael to drive out the Canaanites from Eretz Yisrael and to demolish every vestige of their idolatry. Bnei Yisrael are warned that if they fail to rid the land completely of the Canaanites, those who remain will be "pins in their eyes and thorns in their sides." The boundaries of the Land of Israel are defined, and the tribes are commanded to set aside 48 cities for the levi'im, who do not receive a regular portion in the division of the Land. Cities of refuge are to be established: Someone who murders unintentionally may flee there. The daughters of Tzelofchad marry members of their tribe so that their inheritance will stay in their own tribe. Thus ends the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth of the Books of the Torah.


Left at the Third Cactus

If a man takes a vow to G-d…” (30:3)

This week we complete the synagogue reading of the fourth of the Five Books of the Torah, Bamidbar — “In the desert.”

What is the theme of the Book of Bamidbar?

The captivity of the Jewish People in Egypt was more than just physical bondage. On a deeper level Egypt represents the enslavement of the power of speech. Egypt not only enslaved the bodies of the Jewish People, it put in chains the major weapon of the Jewish People — speech. Thus, the Torah writes that the Jewish People “cried out” to G-d. It never writes that they “prayed.” For in Egypt, speech itself was bound.

The power of speech is synonymous with the power to give direction. The word dabar can mean a leader or a director in Hebrew, as in “One leader for a generation, and not two leaders.”

When the Jewish People left Egypt, they went straight into the desert. There’s something special about the desert. It’s very difficult to give directions there. “Turn left at the third cactus” will not get you very far. In Hebrew, the word for desert is midbar, which is from the root mi’dibur — “from speech”. The desert is the place that is removed from speech. Since the desert is the maximum place of non-speech, of non-direction, it is the ideal place to rebuild the power of speech from the ground up.

And that’s what the Jewish People were to do in the desert. When the Jewish People left Egypt, they had to rebuild this power of speech that had been in exile with them.

If we look back over the Book of Bamidbar, the book of “In the desert”, we will notice that the vast majority of sins committed by the Jewish People there were sins of speech: those who complained about the manna; Miriam speaking negatively about Moshe; the spies speaking against the Land of Israel; the rebellion of Korach (a rebellion about who should lead the Jewish People; who should be its “speaker”); Moshe striking the rock instead of speaking to it.

The power of speech is the essence of the Book of Bamidbar. And what is the climax of Bamidbar? The concept of nedarim — “vows”. In truth, the English word “vow” is an inadequate translation of the Hebrew word neder. A neder means that a Jew has the ability to change the physical reality of the world through speech.

And where do we go after the rebuilding of the power of speech? To the “Book of Devarim” — literally, “The Book of Words.”

  • Sources: heard from Rabbi Chaim Zvi Senter in the name of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro

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