Parashat Matot-Masei, a double portion that concludes the book of Numbers, encompasses a variety of events and themes that position the Jewish Nation to finally be ready to settle in Israel. Through these narratives, we delve into the significance of keeping promises, the complexities of war, the importance of justice and protection, and the claims to the Land.
The Vows and the Consequences: In Parashat Matot, we encounter the discussion of vows and their implications. When individuals make a vow or an oath, they are obligated to fulfill it. Numbers 30:2 states, “When a man vows a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” The parashah emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s word and fulfilling the promises made to God and others. More than just expressing a will, it means one can use his words to effect a spiritual, even metaphysical dictate on himself. While usually limiting, the ability to make a vow is empowering as it emphasizes the power of his will and his agency.
The War with the Midianites: In the latter part of Parashat Matot and the beginning of Parashat Masei, we learn about the Israelites’ war with the Midianites. This conflict was in response to the Midianite women’s role in seducing the Israelite men and leading them to idolatry. The battle results in the defeat of the Midianites and the capture of their women and children.
After the war, Moses instructs the soldiers not to keep any spoils from the battle. Numbers 31:22-23 states, “Only the gold, and the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that could withstand fire, you shall pass through fire, and it shall be clean.” The parashah emphasizes the principle of not benefiting from the spoils of war, reminding us of the importance of integrity and ethical conduct even in difficult situations. While the potential treatment of women and other captives might sound pretty barbaric, the Torah offers a solution that cools the temper of any soldier who would consider taking a female slave, to the point that in a more calm environment he would send her away. This is markedly different to any other such ancient society where men had no limitations and would act brutally and impulsively.
The Cities of Refuge: In Parashat Masei, the concept of the cities of refuge is introduced. These cities were designated as places of refuge for individuals who had committed manslaughter, unintentionally. Numbers 35:12 states, “They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, and the manslayer shall not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment.” The cities of refuge offer a place of protection and justice for those seeking refuge from potential harm and swift judgment.
These are Levite cities, and hopefully these cities of refuge would lead these people to see the tribe most associated with worship to God that they might become better people. We also that out of the cities, half of them belong to the 2 ½ tribes east of the Jordan River, with the other half being for the other 10 ½ tribes. This shows that even though manslaughter, an action done by accident, born of negligence is still less likely in the Land of Israel because of its intrinsic holiness.
Lessons from Gad and Reuven: Gad and Reuven, two tribes of Israel, approached Moshe with a request to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moshe initially perceived this as an act of abandoning their brethren during the impending conquest of the Promised Land. However, they clarified that they would first assist in the conquest before settling in their requested territory. This episode reminds us of the importance of unity and the commitment to supporting one another as a community. Many people learn the lesson that these two tribes, in many ways the spiritually lowest and those which were eventually conquered first, were the way they were due to their focus on tending to their herds, not from strictly following the will of God. While their actions were permitted evntually and they help the other tribes, Moshe indicates their priorities are backwards when he says they focus on their families and fellow tribes before they tend to their pastures.
The Daughters of Tzlafchad: The parashah also revisits the story of the daughters of Tzlafchad, who raised the issue of inheritance after their father’s death. Their advocacy for their rights leads to a change in inheritance laws, allowing daughters to inherit when there are no sons. Numbers 36:6 states, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded concerning the daughters of Tzlafchad, saying, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry.'” This narrative underscores the importance of advocating for justice while still preserving heritage within the community. While earlier they were able to keep their inheritance, having no brothers, but they are nevertheless not allowed to marry outside the tribe of Menashe as they wealth must be retained in the tribe.
Parashat Matot-Masei emphasizes the significance of keeping promises and fulfilling vows, the complexities of war and the importance of ethical conduct, the value of justice and protection through the cities of refuge, the power of unity and commitment to the community, and the significance of advocating for justice and preserving heritage. Altogether those are many and diverse topics, but it all relates to being a united nation of tribes, and how one should relate to the other. By incorporating these teachings into our lives, we can foster a strong moral and ethical foundation, uphold unity and justice within our communities, and strengthen our connection to our shared heritage.