PARASHOT MATOT AND
RABBI ARTHUR SEGAL
Jewish Renewal www.jewishrenewal.info
Jewish Spiritual Renewal http://rabbiarthursegal.blogspot.com
Hilton Head Island, SC, Bluffton, SC, Savannah, GA
This double portion ends the Book of Numbers. Borders of Israel are given
as well as rules to prevent blood feuds by the establishment of
safe-haven towns. If we can have cities of refuge 3,400 years ago,
perhaps today we can have cities for refugees. This may help us end our modern
blood feud in the Middle East. To learn more about this week's Torah
portion, you are invited to read on.
During this Shabbat we again will read from two Torah portions. These two
portions are the last two sections of the Book of Numbers. During the
following week we will begin the fifth and final book of the Chumash
(the Five Books of Moses). This last book is Deuteronomy.
Parasha Matot begins with the rules of vows and oaths. Matot means
"tribes" as these rules were given to the heads of the 12 tribes. A man
must keep his word but a woman's word can be annulled by her father or
husband. Then the Israelites battle against Midian. It is a blood bath.
All the Midianite men are killed. Yet Moses rebukes his generals for
allowing the women Midianites to live. The Israelites then kill all the
non-virgin women and all the male children. Laws about purifying the
spoils of war are listed and from this the Talmudic rabbis learn the
rules for koshering cooking utensils.
Numbers 31:21-24 refers to methods by which the utensils and garments
taken in the Midianite war could be used by the Jews. The Talmudic
rabbis, by pilpul extension, say these same laws apply to any vessel
acquired from any non-Jew.
If they are new utensils a simple emersion
into the mikvah is sufficient. If they were used in cooking, or in
today's parlance, either were kosher and had non-kosher food on them making them
unkosher and now need to be made kosher, more needs to be done.
Since these utensils now have "absorbed the taste" of non-kosher food or may
still have milk on the meat dishes or vice versa, they must be "purged"
through fire. Rashi notes that these laws should have been transmitted by
Moses as supposedly they are another commandment from God. But the Torah
says "Elazar, the Kohen" taught these rules. The rabbis decide that Moses
was upset and angry (see verse 31:14). Moses was too preoccupied to hear
God speak. Therefore Elazar heard God giving these new "kitchen-religion"
laws and transmitted them to the Israelites.
The parasha continues by dividing the spoils of war. Reuben and Gad wish
to live outside of Israel in what is now Jordan. Moses compromises with
this idea as long as they help the other tribes conquer the land first.
It is from the wording of this compromise, that the Talmudic rabbis learn
the rules of business contracts.
Parasha Masei begins with a summary of the Israelites wandering in the
desert for 40 years. The Hebrew word masei means "journeys." Forty-two
locations are listed. In a traditional synagogue these 49 verses are
chanted quickly and without pause. There were 14 moves during the first
year. There were 8 during the last year. During the middle 38 years the
Israelites moved only 20 times, which is an average of two years between
each journey. Moses gives them the rules for conquering Canaan. The
boundaries of Eretz Israel are delineated. Lots are drawn for tribal
territories and tribal leaders are announced.
Special cities are set aside and maintained for the Levites. Special cities of refuge (Ir
Miklat) are set aside for unintentional murderers. Laws distinguishing
between the different types of shedding of human blood are given.
Inheritance rules in relation to tribal intermarriage are listed.
The cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad appeal Moses's decision to
allow them to inherit their father's estate because they have no
brothers. The cousins are afraid that if they marry outside of their
tribe, the estate would belong to their new husbands of a different
tribe. Moses amends his ruling from Parasha Pinchas.. He
declares that these daughters can only keep their inheritance if they
marry cousins within their tribe. The Book of Numbers concludes.
Numbers 35:09-15 tells how six cities are to be set aside in Israel so
one could escape to there if one kills another by accident. This person
could live in this special city and be safe from the wrath and vengeance
of the dead person's family. The Torah's authors did not want to see
blood feuds. This rule applied to both Israelites and foreigners. The
unintentional murderer lived in this city under what we would call today
house arrest until the Kohan Gadol, the high priest, died. At that time
he could leave and remain unharmed within the general population.
In Talmud Tractate Makkot we are told that the Kohan Gadol's family were
worried that these unintentional murderers would pray for the high
priest's death so that they could leave the city of refuge. It became
customary for the mother of the Kohan Gadol to visit these six cities.
She would distribute food and clothing and hope that these gifts would
deter the inmates from praying for her son's demise.
The Talmudic rabbis taught that these cities were not jails or detention camps. They were
places where the reckless and careless could learn not to repeat their
life-taking actions. They were under the constant influence of their
neighbors, the Levites, who also lived in special cities. The Levites
would visit these cities of refuge and teach. The Talmud states that when
these unintentional murderers saw the love and care that the high
priest's very own mother showed to them, as well as the Levites kind
actions, they developed into kinder, gentler, and more careful people.
Numbers 34:01-12 outlines the borders of Israel. The Torah uses a general
term to describe the "southernmost point" as "the wilderness of Zin." It
then describes the southern border from "the edge of the Salt Sea to the
east." It then tells of places where the border will "pass" and "go
around." It mentions the "stream of Egypt." Most of these locations, like
the places mentioned in the wanderings in the beginning of Parasha Masei,
are unknown to us today.
The "great sea" and "Kinneret sea" are
mentioned, and we know these today as the Mediterranean and the Sea of the Galilee.
The Salt Sea is what we call the Dead Sea today. Mount Hor is mentioned
as the northern border but we are not sure today which mountain this is.
We do know that the borders listed take us into modern Egypt, Syria, and
Jordan. Borders are also given in Genesis 15:18 and Deuteronomy 1:07.
These sets of borders are different from the ones set in Numbers. The
eastern border in these sets is listed as "the Euphrates River" in what
is now in Turkey or Iraq.
The rabbis of the Talmud in Tractate Gittin 8A and Sotah 14A as well as
later sages such as the Totafot, Sforno, Rashi, Rashbam, Vilna Gaon,
Aderet Eliyahu, Hersh Goldwurm, B'chor Shor, Gur Aryeh, and the Ramban
write and argue over what these borders were. They can reach no
conclusion that all will accept. Certainly, there are no suggestions or
hints to Jerusalem. as a capital city.
What we do know from history is that
the land of Canaan as part of the Egyptian dominion had different
boundaries than the land that Joshua conquered, the Kingdom of David, the
empire-sized Kingdom of Solomon, the divided lands of the Northern and
Southern Kingdoms, as well as the land when under Babylonian, Persian,
Greek, and Roman control.
"Oh, a storm is threat'ning my very life today.
If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah I'm gonna fade away.
War, children, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away."
These lyrics were sung by the Rolling Stones in their hit "Gimme
Shelter." We are faced today with another "last chance" for peace in the Middle
East. When I first taught this parasha to my Torah class in 2000, no good news had been heard from the
Camp David peace talks between Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak.
Barak had proposed dramatic concessions. He had agreed to Muslim
sovereignty over the mosques and holy places in Jerusalem with exclusive
Muslim access to them. The Palestinian flag would fly over these sites
in Israel. He said Israel would allow the Palestinians ultimate control
over the strategic Jordan valley. Barak stated he would dismantle dozens
of Jewish settlements on Arab land. Barak also agreed to expanded
Palestinian municipal authority in East Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims
would be guaranteed jobs in Israel, and billions of dollars would be
spent to resettle Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Arafat
wants part of Jerusalem as his capital.
Israel wanted to keep East Jerusalem. It has agreed to grant municipal
powers to the Arabs there. Barak did suggest he would hand over some Arab
neighborhoods around Jerusalem to full Palestinian control. Arafat wanted
control of all of East Jerusalem. He said he would allow Israelis access
to Jewish holy sites.
The Palestinians wanted Israel's borders to return to before the Six-Day
War of 1967. Israel wants to annex formally parts of the West Bank and
Gaza. Three million Arabs live on those lands. Some 170,000 Jews live
with them in about 145 settlements. Israel has offered Arafat 80 percent
of the West Bank and Gaza and says it wishes to annex or even rent the other 20
percent where these Israeli settlements are located. Barak said that Arafat can
have an independent state on this 80 percent. Arafat calls the Jewish
settlers "illegal" and does not want Israeli citizens living in his country. He
has said the Jews can remain there as loyal citizens of his new Palestinian state.
Four million Palestinian refugees live is squalor in Syria, Jordan,
Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. Arafat wanted UN resolution 194
enforced. This would allow them to return to their homes and land that
are now in Israeli possession within the prewar borders. Compensation was
to be paid for those who do not wish to return and live under Israeli
sovereignty. Arafat insisted that Israel was responsible for displacing
these refugees in the 1947-1948 war of Israeli Independence. The
Palestinians call this war the "Naqba" or "Great Catastrophe." Israel
refuses to accept responsibility for the refugee problem but says it
would put money into a fund to compensate the refugees for land that they
In Camp David's Laurel Cabin the two sides of 21 American, Israeli, and
Palestinian negotiators were arguing over the control of the City of
David. Barak slept in Dogwood Cabin, where 22 years ago Egypt's Anwar
Sadat stayed. Arafat stayed in the Birch Cabin, which Menachem Begin
occupied. Barak left Israel with three right-wing partners in his
coalition government defecting at the time of his departure. Some of the
Shas rabbis were quoting the boundaries of Israel as described in this
week's parasha. Rallying behind Barak were 28 retired Israeli generals
who said "Go in peace Ehud Barak...and bring about an end to the historic
conflict between us and the Palestinians." At the same time Ephraim Sneh,
the new deputy defense minister, ordered Israeli positions in the West
Bank fortified and sandbagged in preparation for fire fights with the
So much has happened since then. September 11th, the death of Arafat, total unilateral Israeli pullout in Gaza, a month long war lost by the Israelis in Lebanon, and still the suicide bombers come into Israel. President Bush made his first trip to Israel in his last year of his 8 year presidency.
What can our Tanach, our Holy Scriptures, teach us about this
situation? In the Book of Judges in Chapter 11 we read of Yiftach who
was a leader of Israel. The Talmudic rabbis called him "as great as Samuel."
In haste he made a vow to sacrifice to God the first thing that he saw upon
his return from a victorious battle. Unfortunately, upon his return he
first saw his daughter.
We read in this week's Parasha Matot about vows
and how to annul them. All Yiftach had to do was go to Pinchas and have
his vow annulled through the vehicle of "hatarat nederim" (undoing of
vows). The Midrash says that Pinchas, the high priest, was waiting for
Yiftach to come to him. Yiftach, the chief political and military
leader, was waiting for Pinchas to come to him. Each was trying to
protect his honor. In doing so, the life of Yiftach's beloved daughter
Both Yiftach and Pinchas were punished by God for this. Yiftach died from
a disease where his limbs fell off one-by-one. He was buried in "the
cities of Gilead," a limb here and a limb there. Pinchas no longer could
receive the Ruach ha Kodesh (the Holy Spirit).
The Talmud warns that many times people do things because their kavod (honor) was slighted.
They will do these things, the rabbis teach, even though doing so is
clearly a detriment not only to them, but to their families. People will
put their egos and honor irrationally before their own welfare and the
welfare of their children. The rabbis warn that one would literally let
his children die over loss of kavod.
We as rational modern Jews cannot continue to read the Torah as if it
were an exact deed to the land of Israel. The ancient sages could not
decide on where the borders were from the Torah's text, and we certainly
know Israel is not in modern Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, or Jordan, as
some commentators have suggested. For the sake of Torah itself we need
to wrestle with its problems and not stand firm on issues because of
The Torah wants us to follow it on paths that lead us
to peace. There will be parts, like the slaughter of the Midianites, that
we cannot accept and that actually go against the Torah's own laws of
warfare that we will read of in chapter 20 of Deuteronomy.
The beauty of Torah is that we are challenged by one part to reinterpret
If we believe that we were given a deed of Israel with
boundaries defined, and we are also mandated to seek peace, then we have
the choice to decide to trade land for peace. We can decide to emphasize
the humanistic parts of Torah and not the militaristic or fundamentalist
portions. The Torah is ours. As we learned a few weeks ago, it is no
longer in the hands of Heaven.
The Torah found it necessary to protect accidental killers from a blood
feud with protection in six cities of refuge. The Torah clearly did not
want to see more blood spilled on the soil of Israel. These accidental
murderers did not need to stay in these towns for the rest of their
lives. They only stayed until the Kohan Gadol died and a new one became
invested. The Torah allowed the grieving relatives a period of time to
think of revenge and to actually carry it out if the accidental murderer
left his city of refuge. But the Torah also placed a time limit on
revenge and brooding about blood feuds. If we could set aside and
maintain six cities of refuge 3,400 years ago, could we not set aside
some of East Jerusalem for a city as a capital for today's refugees?
The status of Jerusalem is a sticking point in the peace process even today. The two
sides have agreed on economic issues, religious site issues, and refugee
issues. Jerusalem has been expanded to include its West Bank suburbs, where
Arabs are living now. If Israel gave this area to them for
their capital, the Palestinians would have a capital in East Jerusalem
and the Israelis would have lost nothing.
The Israel Knesset Parliament
building is not in the Old City at the Wailing Wall (Kotel) and the
Palestinian government building does not need to be in the Old City at
the Dome of the Rock. The Palestinian can have a piece of East
Jerusalem, which the Arabs call Al-quds, as its capital. Beit Hanina and
Abu Dis are adjoining suburbs of East Jerusalem, which are Arab
neighborhoods. The Palestinian authority has already begun to operate in
Beit Hanina unofficially. These are already called East Jerusalem. They can be
ceded to the Palestinians, and could restore kavod to them.
It is my opinion, that the real struggle in the Middle East will be over water,
not over the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
When we read this Shabbat's parashot we can come away remembering to do
genocide to our enemies, keep hateful vows for prideful reasons, think of
the immutable God-given boundaries of Greater Israel, and sit outside the
gates of those that harmed us waiting to seek vengeance when they leave
through them. Or we can learn to fight strongly but fairly, release
ourselves from prideful vows, understand that Israel's borders have never
been unchanging in 3,400 years, and give up feelings of vengeance and
hatred for those with whom we have been fighting.
When the poet wrote in Psalm 137: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my
right hand forget her cunning," it was written during captivity, "by the
rivers of Babylon." This is not a vow for Jews never to give up some of
the city, that Jews never lived in anyway, for peace. The Song of Ascents
of King David in Psalm 122 records the Jewish belief about our Holy City
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
May they prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls,
and prosperity within thy palaces,
for my brethren and companions' sakes,
I will say:'Peace be within thee.'
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek thy good."
David's brethren were clearly his fellow Jews. His companions were those
with whom he shared meals (com=with, panis=bread). There is no halakah
forbidding us to share bread with our Palestinian fellows in peace. Once
we eat with them we can share with them the peace and prosperity of
Jerusalem and of the Middle East.
To quote the Rolling Stones again from "Gimme Shelter":
"I tell you,
Love, sister, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away,
It's just a kiss away. It's just a kiss away."
I pray that so is Shalom. Amen.
RABBI ARTHUR SEGAL
Rabbi Arthur Segal www.jewishspiritualrenewal.org
Jewish Renewal www.jewishrenewal.info
Jewish Spiritual Renewal http://rabbiarthursegal.blogspot.com
Hilton Head Island, SC, Bluffton, SC, Savannah, GA