You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Matot.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman 2007
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Mattot-Masei
Double portion this week
both long poems
the necessity to read Devarim on the Shabbes before Tisha B’Av
a double measure of wisdom to prepare for the vision
– this week Mattot and Masei
It begins with oaths and vows
oaths – shevuot – related to sheva
the full cycle
according to the Rambam
when he takes up the subject of vows, nedarim, in Mishneh Torah
Vow the neder
weighty to take a vow
to stay away from something that is permitted
I take a vow to stay away from meat
from saturated fats
potato chips how I love potato chips
or to take on something I think is right
but is not required of me
elevating the act to mitzvah status
I vow to drive every single person who asks me
to the airport anytime they want
Vows are a fence around separation [Avot 3:17]
I take a vow in order to help separate from a problem
distance or in our lingo
You love those Little Debbie treats?
can’t eat just one?
you’re hiding vodka around the house?
cruising the dark streets for white powder?
special problems require special strategies
willing to go to any lengths with the vow
in order to make a fence around the problem
separate from it
It’s serious this vow-taking
Maimonides recommends we don’t do it at all
let your yes be true and your no be true
this from the Talmud [Baba Metzia 49a]
we are expected to do what we promise
if we have to resort to vows
something is wrong
In conversation we say
without a vow used in the sense of without a doubt
if I have to take a vow
I’m not good on my intention
I need a vow to get something done?
Mattot and Masei
Mattot in the opening verse [Numbers 30:2]
rashei ha-mattot the heads of the tribes
two words for tribes in our poem
this mattei (singular) mattot (plural)
both words signify a branch
part of a tree
how a branch becomes a tribe
I am thinking about as I stoop
to kiss the ground
A staff a stick an emblem a totem
the tribal stick remote but –
Tree consulted by its branches
branch separated from the tree
as in exile
separation and exile in the notion of tribe
All branches separated from the tree of life
the staff the branch the tribe
what does it owe to the tree?
Soft moist the shevet
dried out inflexible the mattei
the soul’s journey out from God
the exile of the partial from the whole
Israel among the nations
me from myself
the soul soft moist to its divine origins
or inflexible and brittle soul
souls dried out and far away from divine moistness
So too in exile
a connection with the Source
or a sense of far-away
inflexible to our origins
tribes either softening to the tree
or broken off and brittle from the tree of life
Turn all mattot into shevatim
turn all brittleness to moistness
turn the hard inflexibility of separation
into moistness and relation with the Source
draw down the definitions
bring us into relation
make us moist
turn us all into shevatim
moist particulars of the whole
return always assured
Hazak hazak v’nitchazek
be strong be strong
we are stronger
when we are moist
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This week’s portion: spoils
SPOILS (MATTOT-MASEI) 2009
The spoils of war
were passed through fire
their history cleansed
but regarding the Israelites
tasked with destruction
our story is silent
they spared non-combatants,
women and children, but
Moshe’s outrage overflowed
he demanded death
for those who had seduced us
into foreign worship
we sent their young sons too
beyond the veil
into the realm we can’t know
how did our soldiers
emerge from this trial
this awful moment of power
was their compassion burned away
did their humanity
disappear into smoke
From Rav Kook
Matot: Two Paths to Purity
After the victory over the Midianites, Elazar the High Priest explained to the soldiers how to kasher and purify the metal utensils captured in the war:
“As far as the gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead are concerned: whatever was used over fire must be passed through fire, and it will be clean. However, it must be then purified with the sprinkling water.” (Num. 31:22-23)
The Midianite vessels had become defiled in battle, through contact with death. They needed to be purified, by sprinkling over them water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer. This is the standard process of purification, a process that takes a week to complete.
There exists a second way to purifying utensils — more drastic, but immediate. One simply makes the utensil unusable by boring a large hole in it. Then it is no longer considered a vessel. When the puncture is mended, it is as if a new utensil has been formed, without any residual impurity.
The Talmud (Shabbat 15b) relates that the Hasmonean queen Shlomzion (circa 100 BCE) once held a celebration in honor of her son. Tragically, one of the guests died during the party. As a result, the royal cutlery and dishes became ritually impure. The queen wanted to avoid waiting a week to purify them, so she commanded that the utensils be rendered unusable, and then forged anew.
The rabbis informed the queen, however, that her shortcut was not acceptable. Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach — the queen’s brother — had already ruled that impure utensils that are broken still retain their original impure state after they are fixed.
What led the Sages to make this decree? They were afraid that the ritual of red heifer ashes would fall into disuse if everyone used the faster method of boring a large hole and then fixing the implement.
How to Rectify an Imperfect World
There is, however, a deeper significance to Rabbi Shimon Ben Shatach’s decree. The laws of ritual purity may seem distant from modern life. But upon closer examination, they can have much to teach us — about imperfections in the world, and in each individual.
There are two ways to purify oneself from past follies. The more drastic method is to totally destroy those areas into which evil has rooted itself, and then rebuild from the raw materials left over. This was the method used in the time of Noah, when God purged an utterly coorupt world with the devastating waters of the Flood.
An individual may similarly choose to eliminate deeply rooted personality defects by afflicting his body and soul. With the breakdown of his powers, the evil is also destroyed. Then he can rebuild himself in a moral, just fashion.
Given the rampant level of violence and immorality that have become so entrenched among the human race, the world certainly deserves to have been destroyed. Yet, God in His kindness established another method of purification. The preferred path is to gradually rectify moral defects over time, so that even those unbridled forces may be utilized for good. Only in extreme cases is it necessary to purify through destruction.
The rabbinical decree not to purify utensils by breaking them now takes on a deeper significance. We should not become accustomed to this drastic form of purification, which weakens constructive energies as it purges impurities. It is better to use the slower method of red heifer ashes, thereby allowing the vessel to become pure while retaining all of its original strength.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 282-284. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 47-48)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
NUMBERS 30:2 – 32:42
This portion describes the Israelite’s war against the Midianites.
THE BLESSING OF MATTOT is well-hidden beneath a dark and terrible story of vengeance. “The last thing you will do before you die,” God whispers to Moses, “is to manifest the battle that has been raging within you.”
When Mohammed talked of Jihad, Holy War, he described the “Lesser Jihad,” the battle that we wage outside of ourselves, and the “Greater Jihad,” the battle that we must face within. All the holy wars that we fight, all our enmity and fierce devotion to the cause of destroying one another, can be traced back to the true battle raging within us. That inner battle rages on beneath our awareness, yet its power, projected out on the “other,” fuels the injustices of the world. When those injustices become so dramatically evident and painfully obvious, it is possible to have a blessed moment of stunned awareness that sends us within, in search of the source of this madness. It is at this moment that the blood that is on our own hands shocks us awake. It is when the furious words that come out of our mouths are so clearly contradictory to our professed values, that we are forced to acknowledge our “Greater Jihad,” the war that rages inside us.
MOSES RAISES AN ARMY and launches a war of revenge against the Midianites. After killing all the Midianite men, taking the women and infants prisoner, burning the Midianite cities and seizing the Midianite wealth, the army returns. They are greeted by Moses who is furious. “What! You let the women live?!” he demands. And then he commands the army to murder all the mature women and the male infants.
In this terrible moment, that contradicts all the laws of mercy and kindness, that overturns even the laws of warfare; in this moment of witnessing the awful cruelty unleashed by unrestrained power, even the most callous among us must begin to wonder, “What is the source of this hatred? What is fueling this obsession? How can it be stopped?”
We look to the life-story of Moses for answers. The name of this portion means “Tribes.” Where do we find our identity? How is that identity sustained? How is it threatened?
MOSES GREW UP WITH TWO IDENTITIES: Egyptian prince, and child of Hebrew slaves. When he left Egypt, for all intents and purposes he himself became a Midianite. Moses married Tzippora, a Midianite woman. And his father-in-law Yitro became his teacher.The Midianite tribe became his family. Legend has it that he lived there as a shepherd for 40 years, learning and growing into his calling as prophet.
Whenever we try to reject a part of ourselves, that part becomes our shadow. The shadow is the part of us that is hidden from the light of consciousness. In that moment when blind fury unfolds into hatred against the other, we can be sent from the Lesser Jihad, from the battle in the world, to the Greater Jihad – the battle within. We are jarred into the realization that the external battle is only a dim reflection of the inner battle that has been raging all along. Once exposed, the shadow can be healed.
Only when we acknowledge the warring tribes within us, can we begin to make peace, first in ourselves and then in the world. A moment of tragic cruelty, illuminated by the light of humility and wisdom, becomes a hard-earned blessing. In that moment, our identity expands from tribal to universal. In that moment, our tribal identity becomes transparent. The structure of that identity still gives us meaning and comfort, but we can also see right through it and celebrate the many tribes that constitute the human family, all of us interconnected, bound to each other through our shared humanity.
The moment when Moses’ cruelty is unmasked, and we see a man at war with himself, is a moment of blessing. The moment when Moses’ violent turmoil is revealed, we see a man who has rejected a part of himself. This is a moment of blessing. In this moment the spiritual work of healing begins.
LET US REMEMBER that the Torah is not a story about someone else and it is not about some other time. It is a map of the inner landscape. It is a revelation, shining the light of awareness on all the myriad facets of human experience. AND IT IS HAPPENING IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT. If we are to truly receive the blessing of Torah, we must take the opportunity of our shock at Moses’ cruelty to unmask and face our own capacity to dehumanize the other. The story of Mattot shows us that our own cruelty is the result of an inner struggle long buried by our defenses and denial. In that struggle, our tribal identity is rendered opaque. Our identity becomes a shield and a weapon; a shield against the truth of our human vulnerability, and a weapon against the “stranger.”
WE FIND THE BLESSING of Mattot in the fact that although the Torah tells us of Moses’ command to kill the women and children, it doesn’t tell us whether this order was ever carried out. Each of us must search within and discern our own capacity for cruelty born of our personal confusions, conditioned misperceptions and brokenness. Yet ultimately, it is up to us whether those shadows will birth tragedy. It is up to us to decide whether or not their orders will be carried out.
When I listen for the negativity of my shadow side and encounter a voice of hatred or jealousy or an urge for revenge, I must avoid reacting with blame, shame or recrimination. My response must be compassion for myself. Only when my remorse is healthy can it become a blessing. For only then will I have the reserve of compassion to annul the command of cruelty.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
I ONCE TAUGHT A WEEKLONG RETREAT called “The Path of Devotion.” People from many different tribes attended. Though every one had a different religious practice, and came from a different culture, by the end of the week we had fallen in love with each other. We were amazed to feel so close to people from different faith traditions. What connected us was a shared experience of devotion, surrender, gratefulness and service to the Great Mystery around which all our traditions revolve. Because we did not have a shared language, we entered into the place beyond language. Because we did not have a shared practice, we stepped into each others practices looking for beauty, looking for the familiar essence that transcends form. Because we had no shared history, we stepped into the sacred NOW. Many of the participants remarked that they actually felt a closer connection to others on the Path of Devotion than they did to those of their own tribe.
I left that retreat and went directly to a Jewish retreat center to teach a Jewish workshop. I felt at first as if my world had suddenly gotten much smaller. I felt a terrible sense of claustrophobia. It was depressing to feel so cramped and confined, compared to the expansiveness I had experienced the week before. I spent a couple days in crisis, feeling the spiritual challenge of Mattot, of “Tribe.”
Then something wonderful happened. I had a vision of my tribe as a crystal palace. I could see its complex and beautiful structures, feel its strength surround me and glory in its form. In the next moment I shifted my gaze just ever so slightly and could suddenly see through the form to the dazzling expanse beyond it. I saw the sky filled with stars, each star shining its unique light. My own tribal structures became windows through which my consciousness could soar. And with another slight shift of my gaze I could focus again on the magnificent forms that held and supported me.
After this vision I returned to my Jewish teaching, to my tribal exploration, with a sense of gratefulness and renewed inspiration.
WITH SOME PRACTICE we can become aware of both perspectives at once, both the Tribal and the Universal.
I sometimes get letters from people who have had experiences in which they discovered their true nature as infinite beings connected to everything and everyone. After seeing this truth, they wonder, “How can I return to my tribe of origin? Why should I return? Haven’t I grown beyond the pettiness of Religion and tribal consciousness?”
I share my own experience of this dilemma. As members of a tribe, we have to face the accumulated shadow of our people, built up over millennia. It’s very messy work. Stepping outside the tribe we may feel suddenly free of the burden of history, guilt, expectation, neurosis. Yet I suspect that this “freedom” is shallow. Underneath our newly universal perspective, the tribal consciousness lays buried, unhealed, waiting for a crisis to trigger it. Then it will emerge unbidden, turning us inside out, revealing whatever it is inside us that we have been trying to avoid.
To accept oneself as a member of a tribe is to step onto the path of the particular. Traveling that path inward with eyes and heart wide open, you will eventually find yourself in the garden of universal consciousness. There, the truth of our oneness and connection is made unquestionably apparent. I don’t have a lot of faith in short-cuts. It is the journey itself that heals us.
There is no other way to reach God’s perfection except through the shattered flaws and brokenness of our individual Human experience. There is no way to our Divinity except through our Humanity. And our Humanity consists of layers of identity – an inheritance of both blessing and challenge.
AS I RISE TO THE CHALLENGE OF MATTOT, I must accept my place in a particular body, family, tribe, and nation, with the responsibility of healing their particular distortions and uncovering their distinct treasures.
We engage in this work for ourselves, for our ancestors, and for our descendants. The other side of Mattot’s challenge is to remember the Oneness and interconnectivity that is our true nature. This remembrance of the Universal must inform each step we take on the path of the Particular. This remembrance ensures that the values of the Tribe will be continually refined, until the good of the Tribe becomes the good of All.
1 see “Spirit Buddies” for an explanation of this aspect of practice.
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Hard Life
This also discusses how two double parshiot relate to each other thematically, in this case Matot- Massei.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Matos & Masei
Using speech to build and heal.
Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s Torah reading begins with the laws of the sanctity of a spoken oath.
“Moshe spoke to the leaders of the Israelite tribes, saying…If a man makes a vow…or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to what has emerged from his lips, he shall do.” (30:2-3)
As human beings, we are unique in our ability to verbally communicate and converse in expressed language. In this way we mirror the Divine. All human speech is a mirror reflection of Divine Speech.
Creation comes into existence through Divine utterance, and is continually sustained by the Divine utterance. Prior to creation, in a state of reality that is before time and space there is no division or separation, there is only ONE.
Much like the physical process of speech, the process of creation begins with a subtle, (spiritual) vibration and movement within the Infinite One, which then gives rise to a physical vibration of energy, which is eventually solidified into matter. At every moment, every physical time/space expression is an externalized manifestation of a spiritual vibration.
The Process of Creation through Speech is as follows:
In the Hebrew language there is no word for ‘thing.’ Objects are called Devarim/words. An object is a specific vibration, every thing, or subject, is an expression of a variant frequency. ‘Things’ are mere externalized manifestations of internal vibrations.
Man below is a reflection of the Above. The power of human speech below mimics the creative power of Divine speech. Divine speech creates reality and human speech qualifies reality, calling it good or bad. On a deeper level, our words and how we language our thoughts is a process of continually creating the world around us. In other words, things are to us what we say they are.
The most binding expression in the creative process of speech is with regards to a vow. A vow is a thing that is physically binding and as such, becomes a very real and absolute creation.
Just as we have the power to create with speech, we have the equivalent ability to destroy through speech. Our words, which are our projections and vibrations, alter the inner frequency of the universe, for good and for the opposite.
Occasionally we may stumble and speak ill about others or ourselves. When that happens we need to re-calibrate and undo past negative words by using speech itself.
Thoughts tend to be elusive. Speaking our thoughts aloud makes them more concrete. The power of our speech is that it creates our reality.
We need to be mindful of how we use our words, whether in communication with others or in communication with our own self.
An example of this is that when we are feeling a desire to change for the good, we should verbalize these feelings.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we should accustom ourselves to repeat positive affirmations as we go through our day. This can empty the mind of inappropriate thoughts and create positive realities.
You may find that your inner voice is pushing you down, and you are voicing your thoughts to yourself with words such as “I am not a good person,” or “I am so (insert negative word here – lazy, incompetent, etc…).” Consciously reverse these statements and voice them aloud. Try saying “I have done something wrong,” or “I have been acting lazy” and simultaneously, learn to include positive verbal affirmations, “I am essentially a really good person”, “I can and do have the inner resources to change the direction of my life”. Begin to create a positive reality for yourself through positive speech.
The Energy of the Week:
Using speech to build and heal.
This week’s Torah reading infuses us with the energy to create a positive reality through the power of our verbal communication.
Whether there are words that you have spoken that need to be amended, or words that should have been said and were kept silenced, this is the week to express and reverse through speech, creating our ideal reality through using our words correctly.
The conversation that you have been needing to have and holding off on, should occur now. The added energy of verbal communication that is infused into this week will create the proper, positive energy and ensure that the communication is direct and constructive.
Note the way that you use your speech and ensure that your words are not destructive and/or limiting.
Consciously use your power of speech to build, uplift and create a better reality.
Note: This was reposted 5772.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon
Parshat Mattot/Mas’ey 5770 – Inclinations and Journals
I would like to share a few simple teachings that may help us connect these two parshiot that we read together this year. The first parashah is called “Mattot,” and Mattot means tribes. It is interesting that there are two ways of talking about tribes. Sometimes tribes are called shevatim and sometimes they are called mattot. But it is significant that in both cases, the term refers to a staff. Tribal leaders had a staff of authority. However these staffs were not merely signs of leadership. They were more like spiritual “lightening rods” that could receive transmissions of divine guidance and they were sources of great power when elevated. Thus our parashah begins: va-yedabber Moshe el- roshey ha-mattot liveney yisrael, le’mor…. “Then Moshe spoke directly to the very tops of the spiritual lightening rods of the Tribes of Israel…” and he said to them, zeh ha-davar asher tzivah ha-Shem, “This is exactly the divine guidance that I’m now receiving.”
The Noam Elimelech, the great chassidic rebbe of Lizhensk, points out that for Moshe to be successful he has to speak. He is not just a receiver of guidance for his own personal benefit. What he receives only becomes important when he transmits it to those who receive guidance through him. As it says in the first mishnah of Avot, “Moshe (not only) receives Torah from the Source, he also transmits it.” So our parashah answers the question “who are the receivers of the Mosaic transmission?” It is precisely, roshey ha-mattot. If we read this hyper-literally, the Noam Elimelekh is teaching us that for Moshe to be successful, he has to speak truth to power (the leadership elite of the tribes).
But from the vantage point of the new paradigm, transmission is not essentially hierarchical, but rather more holistic. In this sense, it’s the very tops of the “spiritual lightening rods” of the tribes of Israel that receive directly from Moshe. Our Rebbes have been preparing us for centuries to become independent of the need to rely on one mythic central authority figure. We have been taught to recognize the “Moshe” that is present within each of us as direct receiver of divine guidance and now we learn something more. The Moshe receiver in us has not completed its function until it transmits the guidance it receives to the mattot. Significantly, in referring to the tribes here, the Torah doesn’t use the term “shevatim.” This may be because mattot while also meaning staffs (or tribes) comes from a root that has the additional sense of “inclination.” We have mentioned elsewhere that each of us as a whole is a microcosmic analogue of the macrocosmic Tribes of Israel. Each Tribe or matteh is inclined towards a particular function and can be tilted and swayed by its own unique temptations and diversions. Shalom and sheleymut (peace and wholeness) only come through integration of all the major points of inclination located in the body (the “very tips of the spiritual lightening-rods”) that receive and respond to the guidance transmitted by “Moshe.” (As Rebbe Nachman taught, “make sure your soul shares with the body all that it learns.”) This holistic integration occurs when head and heart are one and all the inclinations incline towards and form a circle around Moshe centered in the Heart.
A midrash on the verse, where Moshe says to the mattot, zeh ha-davar asher tzivah ha-Shem, “This is exactly the divine guidance that I’m now receiving,” explains that what distinguishes Moshe from the roshey ha-mattot, (and in the larger sense all the other teachers of Torah), is that Moshe says zeh ha-davar— Moshe expresses exactly what is coming through this is it. But the roshey ha-mattot (the very tips of the “spiritual lightening-rods”) like all other prophetic transmitters say, koh amar ha-Shem, “the way divine guidance applies to my particular inclination is “like this.” Koh means “the way I heard it,” and thus the “leaders of tribes” translate divine guidance into the forms that apply to all the parts of the body that are “on their staff” and under their particular “inclination.”
So we see here a kind of holistic modeling of how a divinely guided center shares energy with principle points of inclination located around the body and those principal points, roshey ha-mattot, become themselves transmitters that transform what they receive from the Moshe point in the Heart and share it with all points that are part of their “staff.” And when this holistic consciousness is in place, a tribe is transformed from a linear “top-down” rod-like hierarchy into an expanded wave-like multi-dimensional integral staff of cooperative co-workers (partzufim).
On the very next verse, where it says, ish ki yidor neder, which literally means, “when somebody makes a vow,” Rebbe Elimelekh points out that the root letters, daled-resh-in yidor—imply making a residence, because a residence is a “dirah,” a place where one dwells. So Rebbe Elimelech explains that the first thing required in order to establish this holistic system is to make a dwelling place within us for the centering Moshe receiver/transmitter. We have to establish a place where the Divine Presence has a home within us, because otherwise holistic integration cannot be achieved and without that we can’t be successful in our specific deployment roles as we travel towards our destinations. The letters of yidor can also be read as yered (descending) implying that consciousness has to “descend” and rest in the Heart, hinting that this dwelling place can be established by resting consciousness in the Heart during meditation.
Now let’s add just one teaching from Mas’ey to connect the two parshiot. Mas’ey is the account of all the journeys of transformation that lead from the beginning of the path, (from making the decision to follow Divine Guidance), until one reaches the very border and clear vision of the “promised land,” at which point one becomes identified as an analogue of the entire Land of Israel, which we’ve spoken of in greater detail before. 1
There are many, many stages mapped out in this parashah that are described in detail in kabbalistic and esoteric sources. They discuss various possibilities for associating particular experiences with each one of these stopping places along the way to the border of the “promised land” that we are asymptotically approaching, the place of wholeness.
However, practically speaking, what is all of this teaching us? What are we to do? Simply put, we’re being advised to keep a journal of our experiences, so we can look back and say, “This is how I got here; these are the things I went through.”
The Baal Shem Tov told a story from Reb Yitzchak Drohobitcher, who was the father of the Zlochover maggid. This story concerns two different types of people who were on the same journey.
Once upon a time (before urban sprawl) to get from one town to another it was necessary to pass through a dense forest. Since people often had to get from one town to another and couldn’t do so without crossing through this forest, bandits often took advantage of travelers while they were in the forest. In those days, people travelled on foot, or on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon. It was a slow way of traveling and you had to go through some pretty dangerous places. Since there were so few people in the forest and hiding places were plentiful, bandits could easily take advantage of the situation.
So, one day a person was making the trip from one city to another, and he was a drunkard. All the time he was travelling he was drinking, and by the time he reached the forest, he was drunk out of his mind. So while he was in this forest, naturally, he was waylaid by the bandits, yet he was lucky enough to survive with his life. The bandits took everything he had, and they gave him a terrible beating in the process, but they left him still breathing, and, baruch ha-Shem, he survived and managed to reach the next town.
When people in the town found him, because he had been so drunk, he couldn’t tell them what had happened. He said, “What is this? Where am I? What happened to my clothes?” and they told him, “You just went through the forest, where there are all these robbers, and you were robbed and suffered a terrible beating in the process.” But he couldn’t understand what they were talking about because he had no idea what he had been through.
The very next day, there was another who was traveling, and this person also had to make the journey from the same town and passed through the same forest. But unlike the drunkard, this person was making the journey in a fully awake state. Even though this person was fully awake, the same robbers were lying in wait and, basically the exact same thing happened. They took everything that the person had and gave the traveler a terrible beating in the process. He was lucky, baruch ha-Shem, to survive with his life. Nevertheless, he too escaped from the forest and reached the other town.
When he arrived, people asked him: “What happened to you that left you in such a terrible state?”
And the person said, “Well, when you get to such and such a place in the forest, there is a certain tree where the robbers hide. And you can recognize the tree because there’s a rock just on the other side, so you can’t see them in advance because of the concealment.”
And so the nimshal [metanym] is, you should always watch where you’re going and keep a record of what you experience, because whether one travels like a drunkard or like the one who is sober you will still have to pass through the forest. The only difference is if you know what you’ve been through, you can learn something from your story and you can tell the story to somebody else. Your story is Torah.
Offered as an elevation for the soul of my father, the Tzaddik and Ba’al Mitzvot, Yitzhak Aizik Dov Ber ben Shimon ha-Kohen, may his memory be a blessing.
Reb Sholom Brodt
Thinking About Our Children’s Spiritual Needs
Near the end of this week’s parsha we learn that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe approached Moshe Rabbeinu with a request to inhabit the eastern side of the Jordan, which had been conquered in the war with the Amorites and Moabites.
To which Moshe Rabbeinu responded sternly saying:
Bamidbar 32: Verse 6: Moshe said to the children (tribes) of Gad and Reuvein: “Should your brothers go out to war while you settle here? Verse 7: Why do you dishearten Bnei Yisroel from crossing over to the land that Ad-noy has given them? …
They then explained that they did not intend to separate from their brothers and that they were prepared to help conquer and settle the land.
Verse 16: They (the tribes of Reuvein and Gad) approached him (Moshe) and said: “We will build enclosures for our flocks here and cities for our children. Verse 17: We will then arm ourselves rapidly, and will be ready to go before Bnei Yisroel until we have brought them to their place. Our children will dwell in fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. Verse 18: We will not return to our homes until each person of Bnei Yisroel takes possession of his hereditary property.
Moshe Rabbeinu agreed to their modified request and instructed them further saying:
Verse 24: Build for yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep. But what you have expressed verbally, you must fulfill.”
The Oheiv Yisrael calls our attention to an interesting switch in verses 16 and 24. In verse 16 the tribal leaders said, “We will build enclosures for our flocks here and cities for our children …” The tribal leaders spoke of their concern for their possessions before their concern for the needs of their children!
Whereas in verse 24 Moshe Rabbeinu says, “Build for yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep.” Moshe Rabbeinu expressed concern for the children before their wealth!
The men of Reuven and Gad and half of Menashe were going to be away from their families for a total of fourteen years. How would they participate in raising their children to be servants of Hashem while away?
The Oheiv Yisrael explains that the Hebrew word for ‘cities’ – ‘arim’, can also be understood as ‘awakenings’. We are taught that when we do mitzvoth angels are created. When a father or mother does a mitzvah with kavanah intention and they also have their children in mind, desiring that they too should serve Hashem, then their ‘mitzvah angel’ will go to the children and awaken and arouse them to do the mitzvah as well.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s instruction to all parents is that we should serve Hashem in a manner that will inspire our children to do so as well. We must think about our children’s spiritual needs before thinking about our possessions. May we be blessed to always have our children in mind whenever we pray, learn Torah and do mitzvot. Amen.
Cities Of Refuge
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the B’nai Yisrael and say to them, When you come over the Yarden into the land of Canaan, then shall appoint for yourselves cities that will be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer who kills an person unintentionally shall flee thereto. And they shall be to you cities for refuge from the avenger…” (Bamidbar 35:9-12.)
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that the three cities of refuge (there were three cities of refuge on each side of the Jordan) represent the three garments of the soul: thought, speech and action.
Each person must escape from the ‘avenger’, that is the ‘yetzer harah’ who seeks to prevent us from serving the Creator. We need to strengthen ourselves to have holy thoughts, to speak holy words and to do good deeds. Even though we may not have yet perfected ourselves in any of these, and indeed we may be far from perfection, nevertheless it is far better that we attempt to think holy and speak holy and do good deeds, than to sit back and do nothing; for in so doing, we are doing acts of friendship for our Master and thus we will merit to be messengers of Hashem’s loving-kindness, and be protected from causing harm to anyone.
Originally there were six cities of refuge, three on either side of the Jordan. Accidental manslaughter was a rare occurrence. But as time went on and there was more corruption and the need for additional cities of refuge grew. Finally another 42 cities- the cities of the Levites, were classified as ‘cities of refuge’, bringing the total to 48.
If I remember correctly, the Oheiv Yisrael says that the original ‘six’ correspond to the first ‘six’ words of the Shema – 1/Shema, 2/Yisrael, 3/Hashem, 4/Elokeinu, 5/Hashem, 6/Echad. The additional 42 cities correspond to the 42 words in the rest of the Shema Yisrael, from 1/V’ahavtah through, 42/uvi’sh’arecha. Is this correspondence merely a coincidence, or does it mean something?
The Oheiv Yisrael explains [this is how I understood his teaching] that in a certain sense, reciting the Shema is like ‘entering’ a city of refuge. As we saw above, Reb Levi Yitzchak compares the ‘avenger’ to the ‘yetzer hara’, and ‘outside’ the city of refuge, is his territory. In his territory, we are more likely to get caught and seduced by him. ‘Inside’ the city of refuge represents the safe domain in which we can avoid getting caught by the ‘yetzer hara’. Of course, in this discussion ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ are not to be understood geographically.
The ‘outside’, the domain of the ‘yetzer hara’, is within. But then there is the ‘inside of the indside’ as Reb Shlomo zt”l used to say, and to be ‘inside’ the city of refuge, is to be in the ‘inside of the inside’ – inside the words of the Shema Yisrael.
What does it mean to fully enter into the words of the Shema? Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad – Hear O Yisrael, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One! It is widely known thought is that saying the Shema is a proclamation to the world, to your family, to your friends and to your ‘self’ – of complete faith in Hashem, in total readiness for “messirut nefesh”- ready to live your life and even to give your life for Kiddush Hashem- for the sanctification of Hashem in this world. You are proclaming that Hashem is One. In doing so we enter into the “inside of the inside’- the city of refuge, the safe haven where the evil inclination has no power over us.
Should you ever feel as if you are being pursued by the avenger, as if your yetzer hara is about to get the better of you- run to the 48 cities of refuge: say the Shema Yisrael with deep concentration, enter deep within, to the ‘inside of the inside’, into the domain of pure holiness where the source of your Neshama is always connected with its source, Hakadosh Baruch Hu- the Holy One blessed is He.
“Avinu Malkeinu, asseih ‘immanu’ – we pray that You use us to do – tzedakkah and loving-kindness, for the sake of Your great Name, and grant us salvation. Amen.
REMEMBERING THE PAST REMEMBERING THE FUTURE!
The holy Reb Nachman of Breslov taught that memory was given to us to remember the future, to remember the beautiful ‘world to come’. One who is involved in building a house, especially the House of Hashem, must maintain his vision of it, what it will look like and the holy atmosphere that will pervade. We must remember that with each Mitzvah we are helping in the rebuilding of Hashem’s house, and b’ezrat Hashem it will soon be completed…. Amen.
The Gemara says that the Second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of ‘sinat chinam’, baseless hatred. Many great Rabbis have taught that in order to merit the building of the Third Beit Hamikdash, we must strive for ‘ahavat chinam’, baseless love, i.e., loving one another for no reason, just like we love ourselves for no reason. Our current ‘matzav’ makes it imperative we build bridges of communication and understanding amongst ourselves. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l was alive he never stopped stressing the unity of ‘Am Yisrael’ and demanding that everyone of us ingest this truth and live by it with true Ahavas Yisrael.
In Honor of Aharon haKohen
Reb Shlomo zt”l taught:
What does it mean on a daily basis, that Aharon haKohen pronounced Hashem’s Holy Name in the Holy of Holies? What did it mean to Aharon and what did it mean to us on a daily basis? What does it mean to us today?
Reb Shlomo explains that these very same lips that uttered Hashem’s Name, were making peace between people! The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot [Chap. 1] instructs us to be among the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the people and bringing them close to the Torah.
It is explained that Aharon did not merely give lip service to peace. Instead of spending most of his time isolated in the protected holiness of the Sanctuary, he was among the people, talking with them, listening to them and actively helping them live in peace. He would make peace between husband and wife, between business partners, between parents and children, between friends, etc. The holiness of Hashem’s Name was on Aharon’s lips every single day. A holy person speaks holy; a holy person speaks healing words of comfort, reconciliation and peace. Because he was so holy, the Oneness of G-d was so very real to him. Because he was so close to Hashem he was so he could not tolerate people hurting one another. His holiness would not allow him to do the services in the Sanctuary, unless he gave it full expression in the street.
When Aharon would meet someone who was ‘off’ in his religious practice, he did not tell him “Listen brother, you’re off, you are a mess and you better change.” Aharon haKohen saw with ‘Moshiach eyes’. He saw the depths of each person. He saw that people are truly holy on the inside. He actively loved them by being with them, by seeing and focusing on their good points and their inner holiness, by speaking with them lovingly. By helping them get along in peace, their Divine souls were aroused and strengthened. Then they would on their own, realize how holy they were and how connected they were. In his presence they became aware of the ‘natural’ holy fire that is aflame in their hearts.
Aharon haKohen did not try to make the other person change, says Reb Shlomo. This was the greatness of Aharon haKohen. Aharon actively loved everyone. When you see someone who is ‘off’, you need Moshiach eyes to love him and help him. You don’t learn to love from ‘outside’, it is a matter of the ‘inside’. As he would light the Menorah he connected all of Israel with the ‘or ganuz’, and thus inspired all of us to do intimate Tshuvah.
From Reb Zalman
Vows and A Gate of Regret
The following comes from Reb Zalman on this week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Massei. [NOTES by Gabbai Seth Fishman]
In Mattot / tribes, the Torah speaks about people who make vows, (Numbers 30:2, ff):
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow, etc.
The way in which the Torah has Moses addressing this to the heads of the tribes is unusual, and it makes us wonder why this law alone was to be addressed to the heads rather than directly to the children of Israel.
Speech is something to be taken seriously and vows are a form of speech.
(Psalms 33:6) “By the words of God heavens were made.”
Words are powerful when they are not made hollow. If they are made hollow, there is a sense of desecration. As the Torah says, (Numbers 30:3),
When a person makes a vow let hir not desecrate it: According to all that comes forth from hir lips, s/he shall activate.
Then, the text goes on to say something of the circumstances in which a vow cannot be kept, as when an underage woman is still in the house of her father and her father disagrees and nullifies; or a married woman with a husband or father who disagrees and nullifies.
So a possible explanation for this law having been addressed to the heads of the tribes is the following:
In order to release a person who makes a vow from the vow, the head of the tribe helps the person find a “gate of regret.”
The Ishbitzer offers a teaching concerning vows:
Why would a person want to make a vow to forego a thing that had been permitted?
He offers an answer:
When someone has an addiction, a habit of which they want to rid themselves, for instance, an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, s/he would wonder, “Why didn’t the Torah forbid the drinking of alcohol to everyone?”
In hir mind, the drinking of alcohol should be forbidden with a power of a scriptural commandment.
So, if s/he makes this kind of a vow, the Torah, in effect, gives hir the opportunity to make alcohol forbidden to hir on the same level as if it were pork.
This example shows why one might make a vow to cut oneself off from a thing that is harmful to one and why the offer the Torah makes of the possibility for such a vow is a tool that is from God’s compassion.
However, there are also circumstances under which one has to annul such a vow because it no longer fits into the life of the individual.
[NOTE: For example, take the case where after making the oath, the individual did not stop drinking. The failure to stop the activity coupled with the oath to stop worsens the situation because the oath is not being kept.]
It is for this case that the option is open to find people on the level of “head of the tribe” to help the individual find the gate of regret and in this way annul the vow.
[NOTE: The annulment comes through a ritual called Hatarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows. Please see the following post for Reb Zalman’s translation of the ritual: http://www.rzlp.org/wordpress/?p=113%5D
Just breaking the vow without engaging the help of a process on how it is to be annulled would make one’s words seem hollow, desecrated and no longer potent with transformational power.
There was a time when Werner Ehrhardt was teaching people about languaging.
[NOTE: I.e., the power of the word. Ehrhardt was the founder of EST, an intensive two-weekend course that was popular from 1971 to 1984. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Erhard%5D
Most of the time we use language in a very loose way and we don’t really stand behind what we are saying. This week’s Torah reading shows us that one is to take what one says seriously and stand behind it. And if we need to change what we said we would do, we should not treat this as a private issue to be changed alone and in private. Rather, it should be done before a court of three peers.
This is why before the high holy days we turn to people and ask them to do Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows for us. It helps restore the potency of the words that one will be using in prayer.
There are also occasions when we make non-verbal vows, i.e., kinds of commitments that are not necessarily declared as formal vows, but have the same kind of effect in terms of their power. Our bodies are very literal in terms of the way they reflect our intentions, and if one has a certain expectation of an outcome that is not good or not healthy, the intention to follow through with a commitment regarding this expectation, even if not formally, or publicly declared, still may have become a reality for us. In such a case, too, it is important to bring about healing through a Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows.
For example, there was a person I recall visiting who was suffering from an incurable cancer. He had just turned 60, and he told me that during the course of his illness and when he had been younger, he asked God to let him please live to be 60. Now the age had come and he wished he could live longer. So, for this situation, we went through the process of Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows for him in order to help him feel that the vow he had made would not be at odds with extending his life span beyond 60.
From Rabbi Saraleya Schley
Our weekly Torah portion speaks to the aspect of right speech. Words can either contribute to making our lives a temple, or destroy the connection we feel with each other and with the One. The beginning of Parashat Mattot stresses the importance of words, specifically of vows and oaths. Despite the gender bias of the text, we can contemplate the nature of such declarations and pledges. When we make a promise, our words affect not just ourselves, but those closest to us and the larger community. Our text tells us that we bear responsibility for the “vows we make to YHVH”. Our words have reality and are to be taken with utmost seriousness. Our words have the power to bind us to each other and the Greater Reality. We must be careful to promise only that which we can truly fulfill.
Mattot, however, does not stop here. Jewish leap years are especially challenging since the reading of Numbers is stretched out and the stories that are often combined, hang on, seemingly interminably. We sit this week with a story of the darkness and the destruction that remains embedded in our world: the genocide of the Midianites. This is not the only time such killing happens in Torah, but its graphic depiction is the central story in this week’s reading.
Midian must be destroyed as Moshe’s last act of leadership before he died, and before the Children of Israel can cross over into the Promised Land. So we can ask the personal question: what must be uprooted and completely destroyed in myself so that I can move on, so that I can cross over into a place where the Oneness is always fully present? My teacher Rabbi Moshe Aharon Krassen teaches that the place of the Promised Land is one where your connection to the Divine is always present, a place where you are always watched over.
I can thus perhaps ask, what is obstructing me from coming into closer relationship with Divinity and from embodying the Holy Temple? How challenging to find a spiritual lesson in a text like this!
During these Three Weeks between 17th of Tamuz and 9th of Av, as we read the final chapters of the book of Numbers, we must look into the depths of our individual and collective psyches to uproot the paradigm of us-versus-them and to clear our speech of intentions that do not serve our soul-work.
With a blessing that we are called to renewed activism in all four worlds – spiritual, mental, emotional and physical,
18 Tamuz 5771
July 20, 2011
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The Ishbitzer on the power of purifying the imagination
Posted: 22 Jul 2011
This week we’re reading parashat Matot. Parts of this parsha may be challenging to the contemporary liberal religious sensibility. One of the pieces which challenges me is God’s commandment that the Israelites must take vengeance on the people of Midian on account of the Midianites having induced the Israelites to be unfaithful to God, and the subsequent slaughter of every man in the Midianite tribe. (That story gave rise to my Torah poem for this parsha two years ago: Spoils.) This is a violent text. What can we find in it which might be redemptive?
Earlier this week, in the Wednesday morning coffeeshop Torah study in which I am blessed to participate, we read the Ishbitzer rebbe’s commentaries on this parsha, and one of them struck me profoundly. He drashes the name Midian, מדין, as related to דמיון (dimion), imagination. (I don’t know that this is etymologically sound, but as a bit of aural wordplay it works beautifully.) And building on that interpretation, he says that what this passage is really about is that we’re supposed to seek out and kill the part of our own imagination which keeps us separate from God. When this negative midian / imagination is removed from our hearts, then we will be innately and naturally aligned with the will and the presence of God.
So this troubling passage isn’t really (or isn’t merely) about genocide; on a deeper level it’s about ferreting out the part of one’s own imagination that tells one untruths which keeps one separate and distant from the Holy Blessed One and from God’s will for who and what we should be.
It’s a radical drash, and it obviously requires the reader to take a substantial leap away from the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text. But for me, this is a beautiful and powerful interpretation. It allows me to reread this passage in a way which speaks to my spirit and my heart.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Women’s Rights (5772/2012)
At the end of the books of Vayikra/Leviticus and Bamidbar/Numbers, Torah assesses the status of women in early Israelite society. Both books seem to end by saying, “See how far we have come; see how far we have to go.”
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, the last parsha in Vayikra, speaks of the freedom of women to make significant religious commitments. Like a man, a woman can make a neder, a vow to work in the sanctuary. Like a man, a woman can fulfill the vow by paying the sanctuary the value of her labor. But a man’s labor is valued at 50 shekels, and a woman’s labor is valued at 30 shekels. Here Torah documents a social convention: a woman earns 60% of what a man earns for comparable labor.
Parshat Matot-Masei, the last parsha in Bamidbar, reaffirms the freedom of women to make a neder. Any woman can do so, but if she lives with her father or husband, he can nullify her vow – as long as he objects when she first articulates it. Parshat Matot-Masei also revisits the right of daughters who have no brothers to inherit their father’s property. Daughters can certainly inherit, but they must marry within their tribe of origin so the property stays within the extended family.
Torah is clear and consistent in its self-assessment: Women’s rights are never static; they continue to take shape through a complex balancing of law and social convention. Sometimes law institutionalizes convention (e.g., by valuing women’s labor at 30 shekels); sometimes law resists convention (e.g., by strictly limiting a man’s right to annual a woman’s vow). It is the responsibility of the lawgiver to be aware of all these currents, and use the law carefully in support of women’s freedom and equality.
Career or Calling
This is a longer drash on Parsha Matot
From Rabbi David Ingber
Living in the ” I Don’t Know” Matot Massei
From the Maqam Project
From Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Matot
July 19, 2014 / 21 Tammuz 5774
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
One Day Before You Die
Torah Reading: Numbers 30:2 – 32:42
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
As I read this week’s parashah, Matot, I was struck anew by one particular verse. Says the Torah: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites after which you will be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:2) Reading the Torah in any moment, I believe, is a reflection of and reflects towards that which we are experiencing in that moment in time. So, the truth is I was struck by two completely different ideas within the verse itself.
First, the idea that God is suggesting that Moses lead the Israelite people into war with Midian in what appears to vengeance for the people. Moses, in turn, calls to the people, announcing that they will assemble a holy war to avenge for God. With the events unfolding in Israel, it is hard not to read this verse and wonder and ask difficult questions about vengeance, battle, and holy wars. Having just returned from Israel last week, my heart is especially tuned to the pain and suffering, and like so many others, I find myself reading every news article trying to understand the situation just a bit more. However, for just this moment, I acknowledge that the verse raises more questions and leave the analysis of war to those more versed in the specifics than I, and choose to look at the second topic that the verse raises for me.
“Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites after which you will be gathered to your kin.” In other words, once Moses completes this task, he will die.
On the one hand, given where this appears in the narrative, it is not so unusual. We are approaching the end of the book of Numbers which will find the people poised to enter the land of Israel. So, perhaps it is not surprising that we begin hearing about Moses’ death. After all, we already know Moses is not to enter the land of Israel. At the same time, it is bit curious to me that in the very next verse, Moses takes immediate steps to rally the troops from all twelve tribes to fulfill the Divine command to seek vengeance against Midian, working on what is to be his last task.
The text seems to say that he will not die until this last task is finished. And, according to the rabbinic commentary on the book of Numbers, Sifre Moses did indeed understand that once he did this final act, his life would indeed come to an end. So, wouldn’t it be natural to think that Moses would want be hesitant to accomplish the task and would do whatever necessary to delay his death, even if just for a little while? In fact, according to the words of Rabbi Yehuda in Midrash Rabbah: “Had Moses desired he could have lived many more years, for the Holy One blessed be He told him ‘Avenge’ and ‘Afterward you shall be gathered.'” (Midrash Rabbah 22:2) In other words, perhaps his end was in his hand and he could have staved off death? Yet, with no hesitation and with what appears to be eager participation, he jumps in to the task, calling together the members of the tribes to accomplish the task at hand.
I have read commentaries that suggest this is yet another way in which Moses understood his public role as leader of the Jewish people and was considering national welfare over his own. Since Moses would not live to enter the land of Israel, it was necessary for him to die in order for the continuing narrative of the people to unfold and for them to enter the land of Israel. In other words, had he delayed the battle, and as a result his own demise, it would have caused the Children of Israel to linger in the desert even longer. Instead, he takes off on his final mission, knowing that it would bring his own death closer.
I think there is another message – one that is inspired by the recent loss of my beloved cousin, Jackie Franenberg, who taught me so much in the end of her life even as she did in the fullness of her life. Even as we live our life, fulfilling our life’s work and divine mission, consciousness of (and even discussion of) death need not be avoided. For many talking about death is a taboo, as if talking about it will somehow superstitiously make it happen, even when it is the inevitable. (Of course, it is the inevitable for each one of us, for none of us are immortal, but here I mean it is imminent and known that it is near). In the words of Socrates “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
It is true – we don’t know what happens when we die. After all, no one has ever come back from death to tell us of the experience. And, we want as much time on this earth with our loved ones as we can possibly get and our tradition teaches us u’vecharta b’chaim – in the face of life and death, choose life. But, the many stories we have of people who know they are dying spending their last days sharing their wishes, planning their own memorial, saying their final goodbyes, coming to peace with their demise, and drawing together family and friends remind us that there is an intrinsic holiness in dying and we are the agents in experiencing that holiness for others and for ourselves.
Contrast, if you will, between this type of experience of loss and one that is more unexpected after an accident or unanticipated illness. In addition to the trauma of the loss and confusion over the many decisions that have to be made, we often feel cheated by not having had an opportunity to say goodbye, to express our love, and/or to know what our loved one wanted for themselves and/or in their final goodbye.
The second century apocryphal writer, Ben Sira, reminds us of the fact that “we are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be.” We have no control over when it will come, or how it will come, but we do have the choice of whether we will have found ways to address our own end with our loved ones. So, as I read this verse this year, I am reminded anew of the need for advance planning, stating our end of life wishes, having the important conversations of love and reconciliation that open us to another aspect of holiness even as we continue to participate with joy and gusto in fulfilling our divine mission!
Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be for each of us
From Rabbi Jill Hammer< /strong>
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
“Words Spoken, Words Promised”
Torah Reading: Numbers: 30:2-36:13
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4 (Ashkenazic)
Jeremiah 2:4-28, 4:1-2 (Sephardic)
In conversations and/or written communication, there can easily come a moment when a single word makes all the difference in the world. One missing word, one wrong word, one misused word – one word can change the entire conversation, and even at times, stop the conversation. So it makes me think of words more closely – how we choose words in general, what is intended through words, and how words communicate what we want to say. Words function, as we have all heard in so many important functions: words can hurt, words can explain, words can heal, words can comfort, words can show concern, words can touch.
The opening words of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mase, reminds us of yet another use of words: ” Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that God has commanded: If a man takes a vow (neder) to God or swears an oath (shevuah) to establish a prohibition on himself), he shall not desecrate his word ; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.” According to the Torah, words are also promises – promises to God as well as promises to ourselves.
Interestingly, the Torah distinguishes between the two – a neder (a vow) is a promise to do something (i.e. I promise to volunteer my time to help others), while a shevuah (an oath) may prohibit a person from performing an act, or might be used to require an act that is not ordinarily required (i.e. I swear to stop smoking). Vows and oaths are promises, pledges to ourselves, to others, and to God. Because of this, the Torah cautions us against desecrating our words, reminding us that we must live by that which we promise. If you make a promise, says the Torah, you must be prepared to live by it and to uphold it!
In a Torah world, a person would never consider making a pledge to God and then default on it. There are examples of vows taken by our biblical ancestors and even the communal covenant between humans and God is itself a vow. How much more so with a promise or oath taken voluntarily by one individual! After all, no one is ever obligated to make a vow or to take an oath. Would not each of us know ourselves well enough to know that our vows and oaths are realistic, doable, and personally meaningful? Yet, the later rabbinic literature recognizes that people did (and do) sometimes default on promises. For this reason, the Mishnah caution against the use of such promises of words. In the section entitled Hulin, Rabbi Judah says: ‘better is he who vows and pays’ while Rabbi Meir says: ‘better is he who does not vow at all.’ Vows and oaths are not bad; they are simply serious business!
Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah help us face the truth that people do sometimes default on their promises. However, from their discussion (and that of other rabbis), we come to learn more about the rabbinic processes for dissolution of vows, the process of ridding oneself of responsibility for words said and not acted upon. Nowhere is this more poignantly depicted than in the Kol Nidre prayer itself in which we pray that all vows, promises, obligations and oaths we took in the past year – or will take in the year to come – be absolved and dissolved. And, in the hope that God indeed hears that prayer and allows our forgotten promises to lose their power and open our words once again to the possibility of holiness, the Kol Nidre ends with the words: And the Lord said “I have forgiven according to your word.’
So, what is this overwhelming power of words of which the Torah speaks? Rashi helps us to think about this in his commentary to the verse from our Torah portion. Commenting on the phrase ‘he shall not desecrate his word’, he reminds us that a person must not desecrate his words for human words are a sacred trust. Sacred relationships – between humans and God and between humans and humans – develop through honesty and trust. Broken words lead to broken trust which can ultimately lead to an end to the relationship itself. Words promised and promises fulfilled help build trust, restore faith, and ultimately seal these sacred relationships.
Proverbs 18:31 teaches: “Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon – Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” We humans have words for all occasions – words of tragedy; words of joy and exhilaration; words of despair. And yet, we all know that in the heat of the moment, there are times when we say things we don’t mean – when we make promises that are later forgotten. Our words do indeed have the power to kill and the power to breathe life. The choice is ours in how we use our words, the actual words we use, and how we use them.
May this Shabbat of Mattot-Mase inspire each of us to consider carefully the promises of our words and the words of our promise. May we each move a step closer to live according to the words that come from the mouth. And, may those words help breathe life into ourselves, into others, and into the world.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Blow it out Your Window: Parshat Matot
From Brian Yosef Schacter-Brooks
Goof! Parshat Matot
K’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh –
“As everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do…”
In Parshat Matot, it says that if a person makes a vow to do something, or takes an oath not to do something, “lo yakhel d’varo- his word shall not be desecrated or emptied – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – as everything that comes from his mouth, he shall do.”
So, on the surface this is talking about keeping your word. You say you’re going to do something, you should do it. But on a deeper level, when we have an intention to do something or not do something, there’s a reason for the intention. The point is not necessarily the act itself, but the result that you intend through the act.
For example, let’s say you go to work not because you necessarily like your work, but so you can make money. And you make money not because you like the money, but because you want to use the money to benefit your family. But then let’s say you use the money to buy food for your family, and someone in your family has a terrible allergic reaction to the food and gets really sick, God forbid.
So now there’s a contradiction between your intention and your action; that’s called making a mistake. So, on this level, the Torah is saying that there should be a unity between your intention and your action – lo yakhel d’varo- don’t make your intentions mere empty words by doing things or not doing things that bring about the opposite result. Instead, be conscious, be attentive, be careful and do your best to act with wisdom.
But wait a minute, you might say. That’s good and well, but in the example that I just gave, the food allergy isn’t something you could have known about in advance; it was a mistake. That’s the whole nature of mistakes – we don’t intend them. They happen by accident. And while it’s true and good to be as conscious and wise as you can, it’s also true that you’re going to make mistakes, because ultimately, we are not in control of what happens.
So then, the next verse says, that if a child vows to do something or swears not to do something, and her father hears about it and prevents her from fulfilling her oath, Hashem yislakh lah- God forgives her, ki heini aviah otah- because her father had restrained her; it wasn’t in her control.
So, who is this child the Torah talks about? It’s us. We may act with a certain intention, but the “parent” can prevent that intention from happening. Who is the parent? It’s Reality Itself – it’s the Truth of what is – as it says, Emet malkeinu efes zulato – Truth is our king and there is nothing else, meaning, there is nothing but the Truth of what is – there is nothing but God.
And so, this is the paradox: on one hand, yes you should be as conscious and careful as you can with your actions – k’khol hayotzei mipiv, ya’aseh – make sure you do your best to bring about the positive result that you intend. But on the other hand, know that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what happens. So, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes; that’s just the ego clinging to a self-image of being successful, or good or whatever. Instead, surrender to the Truth and know that Hashem yislakh lah – you are forgiven because you weren’t really in control in the first place, so you must forgive yourself if you want to be free from hameitzar- from the separateness and narrowness of ego, and really experience anani hamerkhav Yah- the infinitely vast expansiveness of the Divine.
But how do you do that? How do you come to forgive yourself so that you can experience Hashem yislakh lah – that you are truly forgiven for all your mistakes? Ultimately there is only one way, and that is that you have to forgive everyone else! As it says in Vayikra- Leviticus 10:18, ve’ahavtah l’reiakha k’mokha – love your neighbor as yourself – and if you’re not sure what it means, that you should love others like you love yourself, then right before that it says, lo titur et b’nai amekha- don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people.
So, on this Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of the Tribes, may we be vigilant against that unconscious tendency that often happens in community, to judge other members of our tribe. Not just because it’s bad for the community and for relationships, but because when your judge others instead of forgiving others, you won’t be able to forgive yourself. The ego that judges others is the same ego that gets you stuck in self judgment. Give permission for others to be as they are, even when you have to correct them. You can accept someone in your heart even as you reprimand them for something; there’s no contradiction there. And in that acceptance, you will be able to truly accept yourself, even as you try to learn from your mistakes. And through this paradox of acceptance and action, of forgiveness and correction, may the rav tov – the abundant goodness of Being Itself, of Reality Itself, become ever more apparent, healing all who seek it. Good Shabbos!
From My Jewish Learning
Rabbi Jordan D Cohen
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