Parashat Mas’ei concludes the Book of Numbers. The account of the people’s journey through the wilderness is complete. They have completed forty years in the desert and stand on the banks of the Jordan River ready to enter the Promised Land. The book ends on a hopeful note. Ironically, the Jewish calendar is now in the midst of the three weeks leading up to the Ninth of Av, our national catharsis in recalling the calamities of Jewish history. The hopefulness of the Torah reading is tempered by the pain that we recall at this time of year. It happens that as we close Bemidbar this year, the State of Israel is in the midst of a bitter struggle against the violence of Hamas and their firing thousands of rockets into Israel. It is easy to despair. At the same time, the Torah reading reminds us that the pain of our past should not paralyze us. We have reason to be hopeful for a brighter future. My tie bears the message from Psalms 122 “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.” So may it come to be.
This tie could work for many Torah portions, but seems particularly apt for Parashat Matot. Throughout the reading we are reminded in different ways that the Israelites are on a mission from God. There are positive and negative applications of this notion. The portion begins with laws about vows. Invoking God’s name in a promise to do something is a big deal and should not be taken lightly, according to the Torah. The particulars of vows as described here are anachronistic; namely, we cannot imagine in a Western society women’s vows being annulled by their fathers and husbands. Nevertheless, the concept of vows should prompt us to think about the power of our words and give us pause, particularly when we swear in the name of God. The contemporary practice of swearing before testifying in court is a vestige of this ancient practice. Whenever we speak, it is worthy to think of ourselves on a mission from God.
The portion’s discussion of the war against Midian exemplifies taking “on a mission from God” too far. Moses is incensed that the soldiers “only” killed the Midianite men and not the women as well. As great as Moses was, this is his low moment. A similar situation is found in http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/translations/shabbat-zakhortzav/haftarah-portion/shabbat-zakhor when Saul does not follow through to the letter on the destruction of Amalek. Samuel, like Moses, condemns Saul’s excessive mercy. Rabbi Louis Jacobs once said in reference to that text, “I believe that Samuel heard it (i.e., the command to destroy Amalek), but I don’t believe God said it.”* I believe a similar interpretation applies to Moses. In this case, he misunderstood God who usually commands kindness towards the stranger. Moses is led astray by his understanding of “a mission from God.”
Moses redeems himself to some extent by insisting that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe join in the efforts to conquer the Promised Land, before they settle in the pasture land east of the Jordan River. Moses insists that the entire people must be all in to fulfill their mission from God.
As we study Parashat Matot this week, let us reflect on what it means to be on a mission from God and how that concept applies to us today.
*Cited in Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Living a Life That Matters, New York: Anchor Books, 2001, p. 96.
Pinchas is the Torah’s “Dark Knight.” He is a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. When the Israelites were seduced into a mass orgy by the Moabites, God and Moses are incensed. Pinchas is too and pushes the envelope by stabbing to death a prominent Israelite man and Moabite woman who are copulating in public. Parashat Pinchas begins with God rewarding Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, with a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. The rabbis struggle to justify this reward when Pinchas acted outside of any legal jurisdiction to take such action. In the Jerusalem Talmud the rabbis go so far as to say that Pinchas should have been excommunicated were it not for God’s own intervention. Batman is a similarly complex figure who stands for justice but operates outside the established legal system. Hence, the Batman tie.
One additional note: as I post this there is conflict in Israel with Hamas firing rockets from Gaza towards civilian pupulations in Israel and Israel striking back at Gaza. This latest escalation follows the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teenager. In the Masoretic text, the letter vav of the word Shalom (peace) is broken (Numbers 25:12). Perhaps the Masoretes offer their own subliminal interpretation that expresses doubt over the fitness of Pinchas in receiving a covenant of peace. Peace is fragile and broken easily, especially in the face of zealotry. Let us pray for a true and lasting peace for our brothers and sister in Israel and their neighbors.
Balak, King of Moab, seeks a cost-efficient means to destroy the Israelites and hires Balaam, wizard extraordinaire, to curse Israel. It’s puzzling that rather than bless his own people, Balak sought to curse another. In today’s world, too often people’s hatred of others is greater than their love of themselves.
In the meantime, every time Balaam the Wizard-For-Hire goes to curse the Israelites, out of his mouth come warm blessings. Balaam is not pleased by his performance that God has caused, and he takes his frustrations out on his donkey–who talks back to him! You can read the dramatic exchange below. As you do, take a look at my tie of the week. You may want to picture in your mind Shrek (voiced by Mike Meyers) as Balaam and the donkey (as voiced by Eddie Murphy)–as the donkey!
21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord stood in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
23 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn it to the way.
24 But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
25 And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, it pushed itself to the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he struck her again.
26 And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
27 And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, it fell down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with a staff.
28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and it said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?
29 And Balaam said to the ass, Because you have mocked me; I wished there was a sword in my hand, for now would I kill you.
30 And the ass said to Balaam, Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you? And he said, No.
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed down his head, and fell on his face.
32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, Why did you strike your ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me;
33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times; if it had not turned aside from me, surely now also I would had slain you, and let her live.
34 And Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that you stood in the way against me; now therefore, if it displeases you, I will go back again.