By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week, we read a double parshiot, Matot-Massei, which comprises the finale of the Book of Numbers. The contents of these parshiot are remarkable for the discontinuity of the narrative, the paradoxical elements of God’s commandments, and incoherent directives and laws.
The first of the parshiot, Matot, begins with Moses speaking to the tribal leaders: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do”(1). Unlike a commandment, a ‘vow’ is voluntary; nevertheless, a person cannot make a vow, then decide that it was ill-considered and disregard it.
The Torah makes no attempt to clarify or illuminate the rationale for a ‘vow,’ with the consequence of numerous interpretations as to its significance. Rashi explained it as: “to prohibit what is permissible, but not to permit what is prohibited”(2). Another esteemed rabbinical scholar considered a ‘vow’ as a means to abstain from the pleasures which God gave to us as a means of attaining a higher level of holiness(3).
While the consequences for not complying with a ‘vow’ are definitive, the actual essence and objective of this obscure and voluntary act continue to remain elusive. For this reason, many of our sages asserted a strong polemic for anyone to verbalize a ‘vow.’ The Talmud warns: “a vow is a dangerous tool and is best to be avoided”(4). “Better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not fulfill”(5).
After the discourse pertaining to vows, there is an abrupt transition in the narrative. The Lord spoke to Moses: “Arm from among you, men from the army to take revenge against the Midianites”(6). In Torah parsha Balak, we learned how Balaam (‘the prophet for hire’) had tricked the Israelites into engaging in illicit relations with the women of Midian, resulting in a plague from God which caused the death of twenty-four thousand Israelites.
This directive from God to avenge against the inhabitants of another nation is certainly a contradiction of the commandment in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance against any people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself”(7). To rationalize this inconsistency, the “Chatam Sofer,” as well as other writings, said this war was God’s revenge (as opposed to the Israelites) to preserve His honor(9).
The Israelites mounted an attack against the nation of Midian, killed the Midianite Kings and every male inhabitant. Not one Israelite was killed, or even injured. The plunder and bounty were brought back to be divided between the warriors, the Kohanim and the Israelites.
After the destruction of Midian, there is another thematic deviation in the parshiot. Chapter 33 opens with Moses re-counting each of the forty-two journeys and encampments during the sojourn in the desert. According to the Midrash, the itemization of each movement is symbolic of each individual’s journey through life. Pauses, interruptions and setbacks are inevitable as we pass through different phases of life.
(1) MATOT-MASSEI (30:3)
(2) Rashi on MATOT
(3) Rabenu Behaye, “Breastplates of Judgment,” (1255-1340) Zaragoza, Spain
(4) Midrash Rabba (GENESIS 70:1)
(5) Ecclesiastes (5:4)
(6) MATOT-MASSEI (31: 2-3)
(7) LEVITICUS (19:18)
(8) Midrash Tanchuma
(9) Moses Schrieber, “Chatam Sofer,” (1762-1839) Frankfurt, Germany