by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Torah portions of Mattot-Mase’ei, which conclude the Book of Numbers, are considered a pair, usually read at the same time, and they cover a lot of ground. Mattot continues from the previous chapter, in which Pinchas takes the law into his own hands by killing an Israelite man who couples with an idolatrous Midianite (apparently not Moabite, as some have contended) woman in his tent. Perhaps it is Pinchas’ act that fuels Moses’ vengeful anger towards the Midianites, whose sexual as well as religious practices are unacceptable to the Israelites.

As their leader, Moses orders the Israelites to wreak vengeance on the Midianites: Any Midianite, man or woman, who has had carnal knowledge is to be killed. Only women who have not had carnal relations are to be spared. Idolatry must not enter the Holy Land. These are difficult passages to read. According to Rabbi Asher Lobatin, we are meant to be shocked by the ferocity of the killing. There is trauma involved in the taking of life, any life. (This extends to the life of an animal, at the root of our dietary laws.)

The Torah recognizes that killing deeply affects the soul of the killer. (Today we call it post-traumatic stress syndrome.) Furthermore, those who have slain others or touched a corpse must remain outside the camp for seven days for ritual cleansing. Only then was the booty shared (booty was acceptable then).

In terms of the modern day Diaspora’s connection with the State of Israel, chapter 32 is emotionally affecting. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, who own a lot of cattle, ask Moses for permission not to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. They want to stay where they are, on this side of the Jordan, where the arable land is perfect for the raising of cattle.

Moses is furious. “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” he asks (verse 6) and goes into a tirade. Rabbi Vered L. Harris notes that scribes traditionally render the Torah with a space between verses 15 and 16. The moment of silence gives the leader time to reconsider. He accedes to the request of the Reubenites and Gadites with certain conditions: first, they must cross the Jordan and fight with their brothers as shock-troops. Only when the Holy Land has been secured, only then can the tribes of Reuben and Gad return to the land on the other side of the Jordan and remain to prosper there.

This passage is instructional, it seems to me, for those of us who live outside of Israel. Stand with your brothers in Israel in their time of need, we are told, even if you don’t want to live there.  Only when you have done your duty can you live anywhere you choose. Only then can you devote yourselves to your own prosperity. We might not like it, but that’s what the Torah says.

There is so much more to discuss in these chapters. For one thing, in Parashat Mase’ei, the enumeration of all the locations where the Israelites encamped in the desert is fascinating. (I counted 47 sites –try it; it’s in chapter 33). So the Israelites were not randomly “wandering” for 40 years; rather, Moses led them on a specific route, and they stayed in some places for varying lengths of time. During that time, Aaron died on Mount Hor. It was to be a new generation, one that had grown up in freedom, that settled the Holy Land. “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess” (33:53). Then, in the following verses, the biblical boundaries of the land are set forth, something worthwhile to know when there is still controversy over where lines should be drawn in regard to the modern State of Israel (34:1-12). Boundaries are important in the Torah.

Six cities of refuge (35:6) were also set up for those who had committed accidental manslaughter (as opposed to murder). If they reached a “city of refuge,” no one could touch them – as long as they stayed within that city indefinitely.

The concluding comments concern the five daughters of Zelophedad: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah. If you recall, after they had presented a respectful argument to Moses, they were granted the right to inherit their father’s land – since there were no sons as heirs – in order not to blot out their father’s names.  In Mase’ei, a restriction is added: they may marry anyone they wish, as long as they marry within their tribes. Thus their father’s land will remain within the tribe’s ancestral share. Everyone seemed amenable to this arrangement, and the five daughters did indeed marry accordingly “so their share remained in the tribe of their father’s clan” (36:12). So ends the Book of Numbers.