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Parshat Matot-Massei: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

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Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is found in the Book of Numbers 30:2-36:13, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Matot-Massei in interlinear Hebrew/English.

Parshat Matot

"If you make a vow," Moses tells the tribal leaders, "you must follow through."

There are exceptions though: If an adolescent makes a vow within earshot of her father or her betrothed, and he vetoes the vow within the day, the vow is not binding. If he remains silent, the vow stands. And on and on because it's probably best to not make vows in the first place.

God tells Moses to take revenge against the Midianites for enticing the Children of Israel. "Afterward," God says, "you will be gathered to your people," which is a nice way of saying that Moses will die.

"Send a thousand from each tribe," Moses tells the people. "A thousand from each tribe."

So the eligible men are armed and all 12,000 are sent along with Pinchas, the prince of spears, the priest of peace. Together, they decimate Midian, killing every man and king -- Balaam, too, dies -- capturing the women and children and plundering their pastures and posessions. All this they bring to Moses and the priests, keeping nothing for themselves.

But Moses is angry. "You spared all of the women?" he asks, not believing it. "They're more to blame than anyone. They acted on the words of Balaam. They brought the plague upon us. They must die -- along with their sons. Spare only the girls who have not -- could not -- know a man."

He tells them they must remain outside the camp for a week, that any one who killed another must purify himself on the third day. The captives, too, must undergo a process of purification. And their vessels of gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead must be cleansed with fire and water. Other non-metal vessels must be cleansed with water only. Wash your garments on the final day of the week, and they will be purified.

God tells Moses to count the confiscated goods with Eleazar the priest and the tribal leaders. God tells them to divide it equally between the soldiers who went to battle and the rest of the people. God tells them to take a tax from the soldiers to give to the priests (1/500th of the total) and to take a tax from the people to give to the Levites (1/50th).

This is counted: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, 32,000 young women. All this is divided by half and distributed.

From the soldiers were taken 675 sheep, 72 cattle, 61 donkeys and 32 people. Moses gives all of this the priests.

From the people were taken 6,750 sheep, 720 cattle, 610 donkeys and 320 people. Moses gives all of this to the Levites.

Now, the officers of the army approach Moses, saying that every man is accounted for: "So we've brought an offering -- all of the gold that was plundered -- to atone for our deviant thoughts about the Midianite women." And though the soldiers themselves thought to take the gold for themselves, it is offered by Moses and Eleazar as a remembrance for all of the Children of Israel.

Questions: Why does Moses tell the tribal leaders about the laws of vows, rather than all the people? Why do the examples of vows mention only women making them? Why does Moses repeat himself, saying twice, "a thousand from each tribe"? Why is Pinchas considered the priest of the army if he was given the mantle of peace in the previous parsha? Why are the people taxed more heavily than the soldiers? Why does the fact that all the soldiers were accounted for provoke their officers to offer all that gold?

Reuben and Gad -- well, the descendants of Reuben and Gad -- have formidable flocks. When they see the lands of Jazer and Gilead, which are outside of The Land, they approach Moses: "These lands are lush to perfection for our livestock. Please, if it finds favor in your eyes, let us settle here. Do not take us across the Jordan with the rest of our people."

"Are you serious?" Moses really can't believe what he's hearing. "You should stay here while your brothers go to war? This is exactly what you're fathers did when they were sent to scout in the land. They discouraged everyone else from going there. And God was angry. And God made it so that no one from that generation could enter the land. God made us wander for 40 years because ouf them. Why be wicked and act in the same manner as your fathers? Why bring destruction upon your people -- again?!"

Reuben and Gad think on this and return to Moses and reply: "We'll build cities here for our children and enclosures within them for our animals. Then, we'll arm ourselves and charge ahead of the rest of the nation. We will fight and fight and not stop fighting until all of our brothers are settled and have their inheritance. Only then will we return to our cities here."

"If you do this," Moses says, "you may return -- and you will have no further obligation to God and Israel. This land shall be your inheritance." Their leader pauses for a moment. His face becomes slightly less bright. "If you do not do this, it is a grievous sin. And punishment will find you."

"We will do this," they say in unison. "We will conquer the land."

Moses gives instructions about these two tribes to Joshua, his servant, and to Eleazar, the priest.

Now, Moses gives cities to the descendants of Gad, to the descendants of Reuben and to the descendants of half of the tribe of Menasseh, too.

Questions: Why did the tribes of Gad and Reuben wish to give up their inheritance in the Holy Land? Why, in doing so, did they give up their obligation to the Children of Israel? Why does Moses give land outside of Israel to half of the tribe of Menasseh?

Parshat Massei

These are the journeys of the Children of Israel when they left the land of Egypt:

From Rameses, the Children left triumphant. All the Egyptians watched.
From here the went to Sukkot, where they camped.
From Sukkot they journeyed and camped at the desert's edge in Eitam.
From Eitam they went. They settled in the Mouth of the Rocks and camped in front of Migdol.
From Rocks they journeyed. They crossed through the sea, walked the desert for three days and camped in Marah.
From Marah they traveled. In Elim they camped amid 12 springs and 70 palms.
From Elim they left. By the Reed Sea they camped.
From Reeds they journeyed. In the Sin Desert they set up.
From Sin they traveled. They camped in Dafka.
From Dafka they went. In Alush they camped.
From Alush they left. In waterless Rephidim they craved.
From Rephidim they set out. In the Sinai Desert they camped.
From Sinai they departed. In Kibrot-hata'avah they stayed.
From Kibrot-hata'avah they traveled. And camped in Hazerot.
From Hazerot they walked. In Ritmah they rested.
From Ritmah they trudged. And camped in Rimmon-perez.
From Rimmon-perez they flew. In Libnah they remained.
From Libnah the went. In Rissah they stayed.
From Rissah they set out. In Kehelat they set up.
From Kehelat they withdrew. On Mount Shepher they settled down.
From Mt. Shepher they hiked. In Haradah they camped.
From Haradah they followed the path. In Makhelot saw its end.
From Makhelot they journeyed. In Tahath the rested.
From Tahat they trekked. In Terah they sat in tents.
From Terah they sped. In Mitkah they fed.
From Mitkah they moseyed. In Hashmonah they refrained.
From Hashmonah they walked away. In Moserot they stayed.
From Moserot they marched. In Bene-jakan they played.
From Bene-jakan they journeyed. In Hor-haggidgad they camped.
From Hor-haggidgad they emerged. In Jotbat they lay.
From Jotbat they shuffled. In Abronah they remained.
From Abronah they went. In Ezion-geber they stopped.
From Ezion-geber they left. In Kadesh they prayed.
From Kadesh they crawled. On Mount Hor, at Edom's edge, they grazed. (And Aaron died. And they were attacked.)
From Mt. Hor they descended. In Zalmonah they camped.
From Zalmonah they crept. In Punon they slept.
From Punon they walked. In Obot they remained.
From Obot they set out. In Iye-abarim, at the Moabite's border, they dug in.
From Iye-abarim they exited. In Dibon-gad they ground down.
From Dibon-gad they lept. In Almon-diblataim they rested.
From Almon-diblataim they fled. In the shadow of Mount Nebo they lay.
From Mt. Nebo they broke away. In the plains of Moab, by the Jordan, near Jericho, they camped.

These are the 42 journeys of the Children of Israel after leaving Egypt. Now, God speaks to Moses, telling him to speak to the people about what lies ahead: Temples, idols, fortified places -- all must be destroyed. Do so, and the Jordan will split before you when you cross into the Land. The lands should be allocated by lottery, and smaller lands should be given to smaller tribes. If you do not drive out the inhabitants, they will plague you. They will treat you as God meant to treat them.

God delineates the borders of the Land in great detail. God appoints Joshua and Eleazar to inherit the land for Moses, and one leader from each of the tribes, too: Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, Dan, Menasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher and Naphtali.

Gad and Reuben and part of Menasseh already have their inheritance.

As to the Levites, the Children must give them cities and open spaces around the cities to live in and beautify. God explains the appropriate dimensions of such cities, says there are to be 48 of them. Six of the Levitic cities should be cities of refuge, where murderers may flee and be free from prosecution -- three in Jordan and three in the Holy Land.

Murderers may find protection in these cities so that they may have time to stand trial and be protected from vengeful hearts. Anyone who unintentionally kills another person may come to a city of refuge.

If a person strikes another with a piece of iron or a fist-sized stone or piece of wood, and the person dies, the one who struck is a murderer. He must be put to death.

If a person pushes another maliciously, or strikes him hatefully with a hand, or throws something calculatingly, and the one who is struck or pushed dies, the other is considered a murderer. And he may be killed even in a city of refuge.

If a person throws or strikes or pushes without malice, without knowing, and the person dies, then the community must bring justice to this case. They must protect the killer in the city of refuge. He must remain in the city until the High Priest dies. But if he leaves the city and an avenger kills him, the avenger is not liable. If the accidental killer stays in the city until the High Priest dies, then he is able to return to the land of his inheritance. He may not pay a fee of atonement to avoid waiting for the High Priest to die.

An avenger may only be put to death based on the testimony of witnesses who warned him not to kill. A single witness may not put another man to death.

Spilling blood by murder corrupts the Land, God says. Do not corrupt the Land. Do not defile it. For God dwells among the Children there.

Also, God says, inheritances will not be transferred from one tribe to the other. They will be preserved. As to the daughters of Zelophehad, they must marry within their tribe to maintain this arrangement. (The daughters do so.)

These are the laws God gives to the Children of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab, by the rivers of Jordan, near Jericho.

Questions: How can the lands be allocated both by lottery and by size? In a city of refuge, how are intentional murderers separated from the unintentional killers?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

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