file Musings on Parshat Matos

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9 years 2 months ago #8 by Heshy Berenholz
Musings on Parshat Matos was created by Heshy Berenholz
Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.This is interactive and additional thoughts are welcome(posting new thoughts requires login - free to members).


Laws of Personal Vows; War against Midyan; Laws of Purification, Purging and Immersion; Dividing spoils of War; Officers offering gold items; Request of Reuvain and Gad’s descendents to inherit land East of the Jordan River (not in Eretz Yisroel proper).

On the word Matos

In Hebrew, the word for tribes is either Matos or Shevatim. Both words mean branches but, according to the Rebbi from Lubavitch, the former refers to branches that have become detached from the tree and have hardened to become a staff or rod while the latter refers to branches that are still attached to the tree and retain their softness and flexibility. Parshas Matos is always read doing 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 (Hashem) unyielding and obstinate (Am kshei oref). Yet we maintain the hope and optimism that ultimately when we begin the period of Nechama (consolation) we will reconnect, reattach and become one with Hashem.(Note: it would be interesting to review all the places in the Torah where the word Matos or mate is used and see if there is any dissension / argument /disagreement present.)

What is wrong with the claims of Reuvain and Gad’s descendants (later joined by half of Menashe’s descendents) ?

The Jews, 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 cattle and when they saw…( some of the surrounding lands)… was a place for cattle.” Their total focus from was on their “prime” (cattle) 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 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 before the beginning of the next paragraph, when they openly state that they want the Transjordan land.

Moshe, mistakenly thinking that it was laziness that prompted their desire to stay put, launches into a sharp rebuke of their behavior. They return to Moshe later clarifying that their intent was to lead the Jewish people in battle as chalutzim, armed soldiers. They would first build sheepfolds for their flocks then cities for their children. The order points to their concern with the welfare of their cattle rather than with 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 and cattle)”.They realized and agreed, planning to settle their families first then their flocks and cattle in Transjordan until they return victoriously.

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. Their words “Do not cause us to pass the Jordan” seemed to Moshe to be referring to their participation in the battle but, in fact, was later clarified to be referring to their participation in the allotment of the land. 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 a inheritance was purely for materialistic, not spiritual, reasons. This point was driven home by Moshe when he repeats four times that the mission had to do with activities “Before Hashem”.

The Midrash states that if gifts are not acknowledged as coming from Hashem, they will pass away. The descendants of Reuvain and Gad were rich but never acknowledging the source. The materialism that prompted them to live outside Eretz Yisroel never brought them happiness.

Rav Jacobson opines 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 we have the Jews 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 say “If we have found favor in Thine eyes we would like this land (Transjordan) to be given to your servants…” the descendants may be praying to Hashem rather than asking Moshe….

Perhaps it was out of their concern for Moshe and his feelings that they insisted on not crossing the Jordan River--just like Moshe, who was told by Hashem that he would not be permitted to lead the Jews across the Jordan River into the Promised Land…

Why was it necessary to assign each Tribe a specific territory and inheritance that needed to stay in the family? Possibly 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

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz

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