Parshas Mattos - Masei
Not Very Promising / The Beginning and End of the Journey
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Mattos: Not Very Promising
Moshe spoke to the leaders of the tribes to tell the Children of Israel.
"This is what G-d commanded. If a man makes a vow to G-d, or swears an oath
to bind himself, he must not violate his word; he must do all that he
said." (Bamidbar 30:2-3)
Having discussed the sacrifices of the holidays and vows in last week's
parshah, the Torah continues in this week's parshah with a discussion about
nedarim (oaths), since many included promises to bring a sacrifice to G-d,
which were often fulfilled on the holidays.
In the past, we have discussed various different aspects of this section,
and for a good reason:
Rebi Elazar said: Do not let the section of nedarim be light in your eyes,
for, it was through them that the [members of the] Great Sanhedrin (High
Court) of Tzidkiyahu were killed ... (Eichah Rabbah 2:14)
The Midrash explains itself in detail. At the time of the First Temple,
when Nebuchadnetzar had virtually reduced Israel to a vassal state,
Tzidkiyahu, the king of Yehudah (the ten tribes had long ago been exiled to
Assyria), paid an unexpected visit on Nebuchadnetzar, who was preparing to
go to war against other nations. Apparently, part of the preparation
included the gruesome ritual of eating flesh from a living animal (a
rabbit), because somehow this made a warrior fearless.
Still, it was not something done in public, and Nebuchadnetzar had no
intention of revealing his barbaric act to anyone. Thus, when Tzidkiyahu
entered unexpectedly and caught Nebuchadnetzar in the act, the latter made
him take an oath that he would not reveal his secret.
Tzidkiyahu did anyhow. Therefore, says the Midrash, Nebuchadnetzar,
" ... sent for the Sanhedrin and said to them, "Explain Torah to me ..."
They immediately read from parshah to parshah, and when they arrived at the
section of, "If a man makes a vow ..." he said to them, "If one wants to
cancel [his vow], may he?" they answered him, "He should go to a wise man
and have him annul it."
Upon hearing this, Nebuchadnetzar informed them that he considered them to
have annulled Tzidkiyahu's vow, and promptly had them tortured to death. It
is to this, concludes the Midrash, the Yirmiyahu refers in Eichah ... "The
elders of the daughter of Tzion sit on the ground in silence; they have
strew ashes on their heads, and wear sackcloth. The maidens of Jerusalem
have bowed their heads to the ground." (a good connection to the Three
Weeks, which we now find ourselved in). (Eichah 2:10)
And all because of a vow, or at least, an annulled vow. Hence, Rebi
Elazar's warning, and also why the rabbis teach:
The annulment of vows "hangs in the air." (Chagigah 10a)
"The annulment of vows of which the Chachamim say can be performed by a
wise man, though hinted to in the Torah has very little support. Rather, it
is a law that was handed down as part of the Oral Law." (Tosfos)
Which is probably why Nebuchadnetzar also held the leaders of the Sanhedrin
responsible for Tzidkiyahu's breach of trust. All-in-all, one has to be
very careful in the first place not to make promises. Certainly, if a
promise is made, one should avoid annulling it unless halachah demands that
they do, for, the Torah and the Talmud are very, very strict about one who
does not stick to his word.
They [the Jewish people] waged war against Midian, as G-d had commanded
Moshe, killing every [adult] male. With the other victims, they killed the
five kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Tzur, Chur, and Reva-the five kings of
Midian. They also killed Bilaam son of Peor with the sword ... (Bamidbar
So far, so good. After recovering themselves from the onslaught of the
daughters of Midian (end of Parashas Balak), and after regaining their
spiritual composure, the Jewish people mounted a surprise attack against
the people of Midian in revenge for the havoc they caused. Well, at least
we thought they had gained full composure:
... The Children of Israel took all the women of Midian captive with their
And why not? Are they also not spoils of war? Perhaps, normally, but not
when those women were the very source of the sin. Hence Moshe's expression
of shock and anger:
... They brought the captives, prey, and the spoils to Moshe and Elazar the
priest, and to the congregation of the Children of Israel, at the camp in
the plains of Moav, by the Jordan, near Jericho. Moshe and Elazar the
priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went outside the camp to
greet them. Moshe was angry with the leaders of the army, the officers
over thousands, and the officers over hundreds, who were part of the army.
"Have you allowed the women to survive?" demanded Moshe. "These are
exactly the ones who were involved with the Israelites at Bilaam's
instigation, causing them to be unfaithful to G-d in the Peor incident,
bringing a plague on the community!"
Just like Moshe's hitting the rock in Parashas Chukas represented a major
historical turning point, so, too, did the bringing back of the Midianite
women represent another historical turning point-for the worst. In fact, it
revealed that Bilaam had not failed in his advice to Balak; it made clear
the Jewish people's infection from a spiritual "virus" that has not been
cured until this very day. It meant that the final redemption would have to
be postponed, it seems now, until much closer to the year 6,000.
In fact, the Midrash states that when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and
Menashe asked to remain on the east side of the Jordan river, the
Babylonian Exile began-even though the Jewish people would not be exiled
into Babylonia for another 850 years! This is why the combination of
Balak's and Bilaam's names yield two words: Amalek, the nemesis of the
Jewish people, and Bavel, the place of the first exile (Zohar, Balak). It
is as if to say that the combination of Balak and Bilaam served to
intellectually confuse the Jewish people, which resulted in exile.
But what does this have to do with the daughters of Midian?
Bilaam was also a Midianite, and in many respects, a representative of his
people. From the moment he was first approached by Balak's men, Bilaam
struggled to both not anger G-d, yet, to also appear to others as if beyond
G-d's control and authority. This is what gave Balak the confidence to
contract Bilaam, in spite of warning signs that Bilaam was merely a
"puppet" of Divine will.
It was a Midianite trait, passed on to the Jewish people through
interaction with the daughters of Midian in Shittim. Hence, when the Jewish
people come back with the "women of sin," it is as if they are making a
statement: we are, and will be masters in our own homes. And, in spite of
the fact that Moshe cuts them down for this attitude and their mistake,
still, Reuven, Gad, and Menashe seek the same arrangement by choosing to
remain outside of G-d's palace--Eretz Yisroel--and making it on their own.
Such an attitude, indicates the Zohar, is Amalekian in nature, and leads to
exile. In exile, in a "land not our own," we are forced to be "guests" in
someone else's home, so-to-speak. That is, until we yearn to be at home in
the King's palace once again, willing to be "Makers-of-history" in G-d's
master plan for creation, not our own, subjective version of it.
Parashas Massey: The Beginning and End of the Journey
These are the journeys of the Children of Israel ... (Bamidbar 33:1)
So begins the last parshah of the fourth book of the Torah.
"Why are these journeys recorded here? To make known the loving acts of the
Omnipresent: although He decreed against them to make them move about and
wander in the desert, don't think that they wandered from place to place
the entire forty years and had no rest. Only forty-two journeys are
mentioned here, and fourteen of them occurred in the first year before the
decree ... Thus you find that for thirty-eight years they made only twenty
journeys ..." (Rashi)
That may be true. However, there is a different meaning to the inclusion of
these journeys, alluded to in the first four words of the parshah:
"These are the journeys of the Children of Israel ... This is an important
introduction [telling us that,] had it not been for the sin of the golden
calf, all four kingdoms (exiles) would have been incorporated into the
Egyptian exile. This is alluded to by the words, "These are the journeys of
the Children of Israel" [whose first letters are: aleph, mem, bais, yud,
the same] first letters of "Edom," "Madai," "Bavel," and "Yavan." Hence,
"This, Israel, is your god ..." (Shemos 32:4) caused all these journeys."
These, of course, are the four exiles into which the Jewish people were
prophesied to go. And, though we might have thought that the extra 38 years
of wandering was the result of the sin of the spies, it turns out that
they, and the subsequent exiles of the Jewish people throughout history to
this very day, are, in the end, the result of the sin of the golden calf.
This is what the Talmud means when it says,
No punishment comes to Israel without a little payment for the sin of the
golden calf. (Sanhedrin 102a)
As if to say, it is only because of the sin of the golden calf that the
Jewish people ever find themselves in a predicament that results in any
kind of suffering. Had it not been for that "original sin," the Jewish
people would have happily received the first set of Tablets, achieved
spiritual perfection, and would have ushered in the Days of Moshiach.
(Therefore, it is no coincidence to hear from the Arizal that the sin of
the golden calf was a repeat of the sin of eating from the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil.)
Perhaps this is also why there were exactly forty-two stops in the desert,
which, the Pri Tzaddik says, correspond to the forty-two letter name of
G-d. The Erev Rav (Mixed Multitude) enticed the Jewish people with the
words, "This, Israel, is your god that took you out of Egypt." Each of the
forty-two journeys and destinations, therefore, were a way to move away
from that false line of thinking to reconnect to the real G-d and savior
from Egypt servitude.
Likewise, each exile that followed over the millennia (including the exile
of Edom, which we are presently living through), also comes to rectify the
mistake of the golden calf, and the Erev Rav's impact on Jewish belief in
one G-d, the G-d of the Egyptian Redemption, the G-d of Torah from Mt.
Sinai. Each redemption from each exile has been, in a very real sense, the
acquisition of another few letters of G-d's forty-two letter Name, just as
each of the stops in the desert were as well.
The Final Redemption, undoubtedly, will come precisely at the very moment
we "acquire" the final letters of that Name--the one prophets used to
meditate on in order to enter a state of prophecy.
Usually, I spread out the writing of the four divrei Torah over the course
of four days. However, I find on these half-day fasts that I have more
difficulty concentrating on learning than on the full-length fast days, so,
I am going to write this vort today instead. It is just as well, since I
planned to write about the "Three Weeks" anyhow, and it is more meaningful
to do so tired and hungry from the fast.
The number "three" in hashkofah is always significant, for a variety of
reasons. However, the "root" reason is the three hours that Adam HaRishon
did not wait before eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He
was commanded not to eat from it in the ninth hour of Day Six, and ate
anyhow in the Tenth Hour. Divine permission to eat from the tree would have
been forthcoming on Shabbos itself.
This is one of the central reasons why we don't eat the fruit of a tree
during its first three years, and why the fruit at that stage is called
"orlah," a concept which became a reality because of the sin. It is also a
reason behind the widely accepted tradition of not cutting a boy's hair for
the first three years of his life.
So why three weeks? Shiva Esrai b'Tammuz is a day on which many terrible
things in history occurred to the Jewish nation. Tisha B'Av is a day on
which even worse things happened to the Jewish people throughout history.
However, not every year that something went wrong on Shiva Esrai b'Tammuz
did something terrible happen on Tisha B'Av, and vice-versa. So why the
The answer is that, Kabbalistically, going back to before physical history
began, the roots of the Three Weeks were already planted. It is, until
Moshiach comes, a period that is rooted in spiritual darkness and
therefore, fraught with physical danger. But above all, it is a period of
time that corresponds to the three hours that Adam did not wait before
eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which plunged the world
into spiritual darkness and physical exile.
Awareness and appreciation of this idea is an important first step to
utilizing this unusual period of mourning as a rectification of Adam's
mistake, and all the sins that have followed since. In this merit, may we
merit to witness the comfort of Tzion and Yerushalayim--the ultimate end of
the journey, at least for this stage of history.