Now The Real Work Begins! Mattot-Massei Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 Rabbi Glenn
The two Torah readings for this Shabbat are entitled Mattot and Massei, translated “tribes” and “journeys” and bring us to the end of the book of BaMidbar (Numbers). Chapter 30 discusses the importance of promises. If a man or a woman swears an oath, he or she is obligated to make good on it. But this passage contains provisions by which a father or a husband could nullify an impulsive vow taken by a daughter or wife. But if the husband or father doesn’t say anything about it, the vow stands. In each instance where a woman is excused from her vow it says “…and the Lord will forgive her.” Failure to fulfill a vow or promise is sin! People today don’t attach much importance to their promises, but in the ancient world an oath was regarded with utmost seriousness. Husbands and fathers were expected to have the wisdom and maturity to protect their daughters or wives from the consequences of a hastily made vow. Imagine then the tragic irony of Yiftach (Jephthah) the Gileadite, – Israel’s judge – making that terrible, impulsive vow, which cost the life of his daughter (Judges 11).
According to Yeshua, we shouldn’t swear oaths at all! First of all, we are prone to fail, and when we break a vow we dishonor God – and believe me, the world is watching. Secondly, as Yeshua’s followers we are called to a higher standard. We, of all people, should have a reputation as those whose word is good. So let your “yes” be yes, and let your “no” be no. But God is truth, and God’s people must be people of truth and integrity – particularly in the weightier matters such as giving story in a court of law and in our marriage vows.
Chapter 31 is a very difficult passage. God commands Israel to exact His vengeance on the Midianites. They were to be annihilated and their cities burned. You may recall that it was Midian who conspired with Moab to seduce Israel by sending out their beautiful women to invite them to sacrifice to Ba’al. The sacrificial ceremonies of Ba’al were highly sexual in nature. On account of Israel’s participation in such immorality, 24,000 of our people died from a Divine plague; so it is not as though God was “letting Israel off the hook”. But the Midianites were to be condemned for their part in this seduction which resulted in catastrophe. In the battle against Midian, Balaam was also put to death. It was Balaam who had advised the Midianites to entice Israel to join in their pagan sacrifices, and thus bring God’s curse upon themselves. For that, Balaam is memorialized in Scripture in infamy! Woe to those who place the stumbling blocks!
In chapter 32 the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh asked Moses if they could settle the land east of the Jordan. Their apparent reluctance to cross over and join their brothers in fighting the Canaanites made Moses angry. But an agreement was reached: their wives, young children and livestock could remain there, but the men would have to accompany the other tribes to wage war inside Canaan. Only after the land was conquered would they be permitted to return. This is perhaps a good reminder that God’s people living outside of Israel still bear an obligation to actively seek its welfare.
Have you ever taken a trip, and then later looked at a map and recalled all the places you stayed? Remembering places triggers memories of events and people. I occasionally take out the map I used when I and a few friends toured Michigana few years ago. Remembering that journey and the things we did and the people we met reminds me of God’s faithfulness. Well, in chapter 33 God commands Moses to record for posterity’s sake the stages of Israel’s journeys. An important journey like this should not be forgotten or obscured with the passage of time. Chapter 33 also records Aaron’s death (on 1 Av, 1406 BC at 123 years of age!).
On the plains of Moab, at the threshold of the Land of Promise, God directed Israel to completely drive out the Canaanites, and to destroy all their idols and altars. Should they fail in this matter, God also promised future troubles. Chapters 34 and 35 include Israel’s boundaries and land apportionment by tribe and the command to establish Levitical cities and cities of refuge – places to which a man might flee who accidentally caused the death of another. There is an obvious distinction between manslaughter and premeditated murder. Blood feuds, so common in the Middle East, were not to be part of Israeli life. We were not to take matters into our own hands. Justice was always to prevail.
Our Torah portions end with an admonition that daughters not be cheated of their inheritance if there was no son born to the family. They were to be guaranteed the preservation of their family estate. But in such cases daughters were required to marry within their tribe, lest we end up with inter-tribal hostility over land disputes. After all, the allocating of Eretz Canaan was at God’s direction. It was not ours to sell or buy in any permanent way. A person might go into debt and have to sell it for a period of time, but at the Jubilee Year all lands were to return to the possession of their original families.
Massei means ‘journeys’. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the end of the journey marks the end of responsibility. But as in the case of Israel’s journeys and entrance into the Land of Promise, that’s where the real work begins – the work of pursuing justice and trustworthy administration. The next time you’re in a major transition in your life you may want to remember that. Arriving in a new place, or a new position, or entering a new stage in life hardly means the end of meaningful and diligent work. There’s a saying: “The man who rolls up his sleeves seldom loses his shirt.” So keep at whatever it is that God has given you to do, and do it with excellence!