Three positive mitzvahs and five prohibitions
Laws of making and breaking personal vows
God’s command to attack (“take revenge against”) the nation of Midian
Laws of Purification, Purging and Immersion
Dividing spoils of war (captured people and animals) equally between the soldiers that went out to battle and the rest of the nation. The soldiers also kept for themselves the spoils they found (food, clothing, trinkets)
A .002% tax was to be paid by the soldiers from their share to the priests. A 2% tax on the peoples’ share went for the support of the Levites
Officers offer gold items to God in thanks for not having lost any soldiers in battle.
Reuvain and Gad’s descendants ask to inherit the land east of the Jordan River (not in Eretz Yisrael proper).
Listing of the forty two way stations (including the death of Aharon on Mt. Hor) during the Israelites’ forty year journey in the desert
Driving out the pagan inhabitants. “Apparently, God wants Canaan to be the one place in the world consecrated exclusively to monotheism.” [Rabbi Joseph Telushkin]
Employing a lottery for distributing the land
Boundaries of the land of Canaan
Forty eight cities set aside for the Levites including…
Six cities of refuge (three on each side of the Jordan River) to which a person that committed murder unintentionally may flee
Testimony of two witnesses required for capital punishment
Preserving the tribal inheritance of the land. Women who inherit their family land must marry within their tribe (temporary requirement, prior to occupation of the Land)
On the Word Matos
The Hebrew word for tribes is either matos or shevatim. Both words mean branches but, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, matos refers to branches that have become detached from the tree and have hardened to become a staff or rod while shevatim refers to branches that are still attached to the tree and retain their softness and flexibility. Parshas Matos is always read during the Three Weeks of mourning. Perhaps the subtle suggestion is that during this period of the desert wanderings and during these three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple we are/were like matos--branches separated from our source (God) unyielding and obstinate (am kshei oref). Yet we keep the hope and faith that ultimately when we begin the period of nechama (consolation) we will reconnect, reattach and become one with Him.
Following are the opening words of the Parsha: “And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of B’nei Yisroel saying: this is the DAVAR that God has commanded. If a man makes a vow or takes an obligation…”In his analysis of the Parsha, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag raises a number of compelling questions:
Why were these laws about vows directed specifically at the tribal leaders when virtually every other Torah law was presented to the entire nation?
Is there something unique about these statutes?
Why are these laws presented specifically at this point in the text?
When were these laws told to Moshe?
Why does Moshe use the unusual introductory phrasing “this is the DAVAR”?
To answer these questions, Rabbi Leibtag surveys a number of approaches:
Rashi (1040-1105) maintains that these laws were ultimately to be taught to the entire nation, but the tribal leaders were honored by learning them first. All the laws were given this way, but the Torah chose to explicitly state the pedagogical method used at this juncture to teach a unique law that a vow can be annulled by a single expert judge. Otherwise a panel of three non-expert judges is required to annul a vow. The use of the more authoritative phrase “this is the DAVAR” underscores Moshe’s higher level of prophesy compared to other prophets who could only say “thus said God”.
Rashbam (grandson of Rashi, 1085-1174) opines that God told Moshe these laws (to be taught to the entire nation) at the same time that He taught him the laws of korbanot (animal offerings). Because these laws about vows are a continuation of the laws in Parshat Pinchas --that describe the additional korbanot brought on Shabbos and holidays but also makes mention of vows to bring korbanot-- there is no need to repeat the more familiar phrase “and God spoke to Moshe saying…” Moshe goes to the tribal leaders who are the judges and tells them to teach all the people the laws of vows—including not being late in bringing any korbanot offerings that are either obligatory or voluntary (both considered vows).
Ramban (1195-1270) notes other examples in the Torah where commandments by Moshe begin with the phrase “this is the DAVAR” rather than “and God spoke to Moshe saying…” His view is that these laws were to be taught only to the tribal leaders because teaching the masses about the ability to annul vows might prompt them to take their words lightly, knowing that any vow they make can be annulled.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) thinks that these laws were given after the war with Midian in anticipation of the vow that would be made by the children of Reuvain and Gad to join the Israelites in battle for the Land of Israel.
Chizkuni (Rav Chizkiya ben Manoac, mid-thirteenth century) agrees that the laws were to be taught to all, but the reason that the tribal leaders were taught first is because it is their responsibility to enforce the laws.
Sforno (1475-1550) links the laws here to “Do not make an oath in God’s name (and not fulfill it)” to teach that the prohibition only applies to males. But wives and daughters, considered in those days to be under the jurisdiction of their husbands and fathers respectively, are provided with an avenue to annul their vows.
Anger and Forgetfulness
When the Israelites were taught how to cleanse the vessels that were captured in the war against Midian, Moshe forgot the regulations regarding the purging of those vessels captured from non-Israelites. Instead, Elazar the high priest instructed the people in the proper procedure. The Midrash explains that because Moshe fell into a state of anger he fell into a state of error and these laws were concealed from him.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe cites the Arizal’s opinion that anger is the most serious sin. When one sins one’s soul still remains in his body. But when one is angry, his soul departs and is replaced by a foreign force, one that the Rebbe calls “external soul”. The emotion of anger is so powerful that it blocks one’s ability to think clearly and to draw on his intellect.
What was wrong with the Request of Reuvain and Gad’s Descendants (Later Joined by Half of Menashe’s Descendants)?
The Israelites, having conquered Transjordan, stand ready on the Plains of Moav to enter and conquer the Promised Land. At that point the Torah tells us that “…the children of Reuvain and Gad had a huge amount of livestock and when they saw… (some of the surrounding lands)… was a place for livestock.” Their total focus from was on their “prime” (livestock) material possessions, not on the religious/spiritual uplifting that awaited them in the Promised Land! And as we shall soon see, they were more concerned with their monies than with their children.
“The children of Gad and of Reuvain came and spoke to Moshe and to Elazar the priest…” and told them how the land was especially suitable for cattle, which they had. Rav B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah points out that Gad is mentioned first now (instead of second as previously) because it was Gad that took the initiative and became the combined tribes’ spokesman. Gad was not afraid of the hostile neighbors and did not act out of cowardice.
Abrabanel comments on the delicate nature of the negotiations in which they intimated their claim…and waited, as suggested by the blank space in the text preceding the beginning of the next paragraph. When Moshe does not respond, they openly say that they want the Transjordan land.
Moshe thinks that it was laziness that prompted their desire to stay put and launches into a sharp rebuke of their behavior. They return to Moshe later clarifying that their intent was to lead the Israelites in battle as chalutzim, “armed soldiers” or “trailblazers”. They would first build sheepfolds for their flocks then cities for their children. Their priority seemed to be the welfare of their livestock before the concern for their children. Rashi notes that Moshe had to correct them and told them “what is of primary significance do first (i.e., build cities for the children) and what is secondary do second (building folds for the sheep)”.They agreed and responded that they would first settle their families in Transjordan and only then deal with their livestock. Then they would leave to lead the Israelites in battle.
Rav Jacobson cites Isaac Erama’s questions on Moshe’s initial reaction and his failure to apologize once the tribes’ intent is clarified. It appears that the ambiguity in the tribes’ request is what precipitated Moshe’s misunderstanding of their motives. Moshe thought their words “Do not cause us to pass the Jordan” meant that they did not want to participate in the battles to conquer the land of Israel. But, as was clarified later, what they meant was that they did not want a share of the land on the other side of the Jordan River. Isaac Erama concludes that Moshe did not apologize because he objected to the tribes disinterest in the holiness/spiritual uplifting that the Promised Land of Israel offers. Their choice of geographic inheritance was for materialistic, not spiritual, reasons. This point was driven home by Moshe when, in acquiescing to their request he repeats four times that the mission to conquer the land was a religious obligation, being done “Before Hashem”(“in front of God”).
The Midrash states that if gifts are not acknowledged as coming from God, they will pass away. Though the descendants of Reuvain and Gad were rich they never acknowledging the source of their wealth. The materialism that prompted them to live outside Eretz Yisroel never brought them happiness.
Rav Jacobson concludes that the message for all generations is that success and accomplishment is a gift from Heaven and a society based on materialism alone cannot survive. “These tribes of Transjordan were the first to perish and disappear from history.”
Observations, thoughts and questions
For the first time the Israelites are not complaining but rather expressing a course of action to realize their desire and to help their brethren.
Perhaps the Reuvain and Gad descendants thought that Transjordan was a part of the Holy Land and, therefore, requested that it be their share.
When they said “If we have found favor in Thine eyes we would like this land (Transjordan) to be given to your servants…” the descendants may have been praying to God, not asking Moshe.
Perhaps it was out of their concern for Moshe and his feelings that they insisted on not crossing the Jordan River because then they would be just like Moshe, who was told that he would not be permitted to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
The need to assign each Tribe a specific territory and inheritance that must stay in the family may have been designed to…
• Prevent any one tribe from aggressively controlling the entire country.
• Match the territory with each tribe’s unique skills and personality.
• Create the familiar, prevailing Middle East social structure wherein each clan/family had its own defined territory and rules.
Why the Need for a 40-Verse Desert Travelogue?
In her Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz surveys some of possible answers:
• Rashi opines that the travel detail publicizes God’s compassion in that He did not allow the Jews to wander nonstop for 40 years. On the contrary, they were able to rest at each of the 42 stages, for extended periods of time at some. Rashi also quotes the Midrash Tanchumah that compares the Jews’ travels to a trip a King makes to find a cure for his ailing son. When he returns, the King enumerates each of the places on the trip. Here God asks Moshe to recall each of the places where the Jews provoked Him to anger, but at the end He kept His promise.
• The Be’er Yitzchak (super commentary on Rashi) thinks that the importance is the historical continuity that this record provides for the Jews when they are settled in their Homeland. Reading the text evokes the memory of the sufferings that existed on the way to achieving the goal of achieving a Homeland.
• Rambam focuses on the accuracy of the Jewish history that the text provides. The Jews did not, as some would have it, blunder helplessly in the desert. On the contrary, they were guided by God who manifests His presence in an overhead cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show them the way.
• Sforno points out that while it is true that the Israelites were rebellious and grumbling during their desert traveling, it is also true that they without questioning and without knowing where they were headed chose to “follow Him through the wilderness that was not sown”.
On Oray Miklat (Cities of Refuge)
The Torah states that when the Israelites cross the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan they are to “designate towns [initially six, three on either side of the Jordan River] that shall serve you as refuge cities to which a murderer who killed a person accidentally can flee”. The Hebrew word MIKLAT connotes “clutching”, “absorption”, and “retention”.
Key aspects are:
• The refuge is available to those convicted of manslaughter (and not premeditated murderers)
• The Blood Avenger/Redeemer (relatives who wants to make sure that the death of their family member does not go unpunished) could not enter the city but can kill the individual if he is found outside the city
• The person is free to leave upon the death of the High Priest
What the purpose of these cities is a matter of lively discussion. Rav B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah cites a number of views.
It may be…
• A protective measure to guard the person from the Blood Redeemer and to provide an opportunity for passions to cool. Rambam asserts that we want to calm the excited bloodthirstiness of the Blood Avenger by keeping the individual out of his sight.
• A punitive measure. One who has caused the death of another human being even by accident must experience exile, separated from family and friends, which is a kind of Social Death.
• An expiatory measure. Killing was understood to be something that contaminated the community and the killer needed to be isolated lest he cause further contamination to those around him. Rav Hirsch concludes that it is a chance for the individual to redeem himself from the burden of guilt that weighs on him. The city’s citizens are obligated to attend to his spiritual and cultural needs. The surrounding Levites will know how to educate him and help him to be a better person when he leaves than when he arrived.
Shadal points to the historic context of earlier generations when it was considered the sacred obligation of a family member to avenge the death by murder of a fellow family member. With the creation of a judicial system it became possible to calm the avenger with the prospect of Justice being meted out by the Courts (Beis Din). But this won’t work in the case of accidental murderer because he will be constantly “in the face” of the Avenger, seemingly getting off scot- free. The Avenger would feel a lack of love because of (or guilt over) his inability to avenge the death of the family member. The Torah balanced these opposing drives by relocating the manslayer to a protected Refuge city, but also permitting the Avenger the chance for vengeance should the manslayer leave the city of Refuge.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that these cities were Levite cities. The Matriarch Leah named her third son Levi in the hope that now her husband Jacob will be attached (yiLaVeh) to her. The name Levi suggests reattachment after a period of separation and distance. The cities and the Levites were there to help the sinful to re-approach and re-attach themselves to God.
Rambam maintains that in the Messianic times the cities of Refuge will be re-established on a more extensive basis.
It is puzzling that the same numbers of cities were to be established on either side of the Jordan River even though many more people (nine and a half tribes) settled in the Land of Canaan than settled on the eastern side! The Me’am Lo’ez, a classic Ladino Torah scholar, speculates that there were more murderers living on the eastern side-- many of whom murdered intentionally but made their actions appear as if they were accidental. Because of the impossibility of proving that they acted intentionally, a court could not prosecute them and they were exiled to one of the Cities of Refuge. Rabbi Marc Angel characterizes such people as being filled with “pious cruelty”. Under the cloak of piety, a seemingly religious person behaves ruthlessly and hypocritically to achieve his immoral goals.
The need to be alert to this dangerous behavior exists both in religious life and in world affairs. Rabbi Angel points out how the anti-Semites and anti-Zionists of the world conceal their true motives--the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people--when they assert that their opinions and behavior are driven by their deep concern for human rights. Like the murderers east of the Jordan, they try to “pass themselves off as moral agents who are acting with humanitarian motives”. We need to be on guard to recognize these people for who and what they are.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Retribution and Revenge
Homicide, deliberate killing, is an extremely serious offense. But killing someone who committed manslaughter (unintentional) is an act of revenge, not justice. The Torah seeks to prevent unjust violence, starting with the Cayen and Hevel story; persisting in the days after Noah and the Flood; and continuing here where the shedding of blood is described as polluting/soiling/defiling the land. “Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity…death defiles”.
The Torah recognizes the human desire for revenge, but insists on justice between the one who committed manslaughter and the victim’s family. It demands a trial to determine guilt or innocence. The person found innocent of premeditated murder needs to be relocated to a city of refuge.
Revenge is passionate and personal. But retribution is impersonal; it is the rule of law (justice) that authorizes behavior. Rabbi Sacks defines retribution as “the principled rejections of revenge …The cities of refuge are part of the process by which vengeance is replaced by retributive justice”. Violence and bloodshed prevail in societies where revenge is given free reign. The Torah’s progressive idea for civilization is the law of the cities of refuge “allowing retribution to take the place of revenge and justice the place of retaliation.”
Why is the Length of Stay Tied to the Death of the High Priest?
Rambam offers the psychological analysis that the death of the High Priest would prompt people—including the Blood Avenger—to consider death and its inevitability and the suffering it brings. Upon contemplating this, the would-be Avenger may then no longer feel the need to kill.
Isaac Erama thinks that since the Cities of Refuge came under the Administration of the High Priest, his death may be a kind of amnesty.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut reasons that only death could expiate the sin. “It was not until the High Priest Had died that the process was completed and full expiation extended to the manslayer himself”.
Why is The Topic Presented Here at the Very End of Sefer Bemidbar?
The Israelites, having engaged in some ferocious battles east of the Jordan River, are on the verge of entering the Promised Land to create a society and life built the ethics of the Torah. There would be additional fighting and killing in the course of capturing Eretz Canaan. At this juncture, with the (necessary) killings in battles of the past and expected in the future, perhaps it was the Torah’s intent to draw attention to the peacetime horror of killing a fellow human being, even unintentionally. There would be the desire for revenge, there would be guilt; there would be a social death.
The Torah refers to the perpetrator of unplanned murder as a rotzayach, a murderer. On some deep unconscious level even the accidental killing may have traces of premeditation. Perhaps the Torah is sensitizing us to the need to be super careful in our behavior, for which we and we alone are responsible. We are to make the extra effort to be sure that our actions cause no harm. For example, the woodchopper would be best advised to make sure that the head and handle of the axe are attached firmly—and to check again that there is no one in the vicinity when he begins his wood chopping.
In this Parsha the Torah demands that the Israelites uproot all traces of paganism and idolatry in the Land of Canaan. It now demands that we pay attention to our behavior. The Afikomen is eaten last at the Seder so that its taste (i.e., its message) stays with us. Perhaps the same idea is applicable here. The topics discussed in the Parsha are of such importance that the Torah presents them last so that their “taste” stays with us (i.e., critical importance of avoiding both idolatry and even “accidental” bloodshed).
The Borders of the Land
When God made his first Covenant with Avraham (Brit Bein HB’tarim, the cut animal pieces) He promised that the future Israelite nation will be given a huge territory in which to settle: “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”
But in this week’s Parsha God describes a considerably smaller Biblical Land…
• On the west is the Mediterranean Sea
• The northern border extends from the Sea to Chatzar-Ainan
• The eastern border runs south from there towards Rivla, through the eastern shore of Lake Kineret then continues along the Jordan River and ends in the Salt Sea
• The southern border stretches from the edge of the Salt Sea to Kadesh Barne’a, continues to Azmon, turns to the “stream of Egypt” (border with Egypt?,Wadi El Arish?) and ends at the Mediterranean Sea
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that the Biblical definition of Eretz Canaan (as mentioned in God’s second Covenant with Avraham at the time of his circumcision, Brit Milah) “more or less coincides with the general region that the Avot inhabited”. He hypothesizes that the considerably larger land promised to Avraham represents the limit of Israel’s potential moral and ethical influence beyond the basic, “kernel” Land of Canaan. Avraham was promised a nation that would become a blessing to all nations. That influence could extend up to the two ancient centers of civilization---Egypt (Nile River) and Mesopotamia (Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). Rambam rules that “this expansion can take place only after the kernel area of Eretz Canaan is first conquered”.
Over the years, the definition of the country’s borders changed many times. The identification of what constitutes Eretz Yisrael has many Halachic ramifications including…
Mitzvah of settling in the land
Prohibition of leaving
Observance of Shemitah year-- beginning this coming Rosh Hashana—that, among other things, waves all outstanding debts between Jews and requires the residents of Eretz Yisrael to desist from cultivating their fields