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.