These two portions, Matot (Tribes) – Masei (Journeys) end the fourth book of the Torah Bamidbar (Numbers). Matot emphasizes the subject of vows. Our people, Israel had made a vow to “do and obey” the Ten Commandments that Moshe had brought down from Mt. Sinai. These tablets, the Constitution of Israel, were kept in the ark in the Mishkan wherever the people went and were carried by the cohanim at the forefront of every battle. There were rulings for women of all ages and statuses within the community for vows that they had made. These were given for their protection. Women at that time had no rights but the Torah elevated the status of women to be equal with men. It speaks of different roles for men and women, not about their value. With these rulings about vows, the Creator was instructing this next generation on the value of the words that would come out of their mouth. Israel, who was created to be “ohr l’goyim” light to the nations, needed to learn that when they did not keep their word, people would lose trust in them. When we promise something, we must keep it. Rabbi Yeshua told us that our “yes needs to be yes and our no needs to be no”. Our words have power and hold a lot of weight. We know how much damage can be done by “lashon harah”, the evil tongue or gossip. It would take a long process to purge this young nation from all the old habits that they had learned under Egypt’s immoral system.
At the end of Parashat Matot, we read about the vengeance taken out against the Midianites and we may wonder why them and not the Moabites. The Moabites feared Israel while the Midianites did everything in their power to destroy Israel out of pure hatred or envy. This is called “sinat chinam – שנאת חינם.” The Midianites used their women to lead the men of Israel away from their God, causing Pinchas to take quick action before being annihilated by the ensuing plague. The Israelites were told to kill all the Midianites. This story is difficult to comprehend from today’s perspective unless we understand that there are consequences for disobedience and treachery. We see this free hatred – anti-Semitism, running rampant in the world again today. The Jews have had many “holocausts” over the centuries – the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, Germany in WW2, etc., simply because we are different. We suffer when we hold hatred in our hearts against anyone without reason.
Next, we read that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and ½ of Manasseh, preferred not to enter the Promised Land but to stay on the other side of the Jordan where the land would be better for their cattle. Their interest was purely selfish, but Moshe insisted that they fight with the others to conquer the land after which they could return to their families. They needed to keep their word and later the consequence of their decision would be they left themselves vulnerable to attack by marauding bands. Later they fell in the path of the cruel King of Assyria (2 Kings 15:29) and sadly, reaped trouble and captivity instead of the blessing that God had intended for them. The Creator guides us and shows us what He wants us to do, but it’s up to us to keep our word and to work hard and unselfishly for the greater good of the community.
The next portion Masei, (Journeys) covers forty-two major places where Israel would experience the consequences of their constant complaints and disobedience. The result of each was that their stay would be extended. How often had they wanted to return to Egypt where they had been slaves instead of rejoicing in their freedom? How easy it is for us to complain about what we “think” we are missing in our lives instead of focusing on what we have. It is written in Pirkei Avot 4: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy, and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2).
Today’s younger generation living in the free world is crying out to return to a socialist system of handouts, where the government will turn them into slaves. It is a generation of entitlement whereas the Creator is teaching us through Masei that if we don’t work for something, we are not entitled to it. Marxism teaches that “the end justifies the means”; that we can do “whatever” it takes to reach the goal. The Torah teaches the opposite; although the goal is important, it is the journey that counts. Each stage of our life’s journey is to teach us and make us a better person. If everything is too easily obtained, we lose the desire to grow and improve. Handouts are only for someone who has special needs, but those who are capable, need to use their skills for the benefit of society and this process serves to increase their self-worth. We are the only species with communication skills and intelligence and the Torah is teaching us about morality so that we can use these attributes with responsibility. If we do not act with moral values and integrity, society falls into chaos.
There are two systems in the world utilized so that people will obey the rules: one uses fear and enforcement and the other, enticement and reward. The Torah teaches a third way: by “Personal Moral Decision”. We do the right thing simply because it is right. We have been given the gift of Free Will. This entails responsibility. Our creator gave us each a measure of faith, but it is only useful if we use our free will to turn faith into trust. Therefore, our daily battles are to make the right choices that stem from our kavanah, proper intention. That is how we are judged by our Creator. Some people may play the game of being goody-goody, but the Creator cannot be deceived. Our good works have little value if done for the wrong reason.
We have all had our ups and downs in the stages of our life; there are things that we may be ashamed of, but we can now make them right. Let us not hold anything against anyone because we don’t know what they have been through. Simply put it in the hands of the Creator and pray for them to have their hearts opened. There are times when we just need to agree to disagree with those whose ideas are different than ours. Remember – our words have power – so let us use them wisely. Bamidbar ends at the border before the people can enter the Promised Land. This is a picture that the goal is not as important as our journey through life. Let’s do our best each day “to do and obey” His Commandments and to keep our word.
Ranebi (Rabbi Netanel Ben Yochanan)