Judaism: Reading Mattot-Masei "Between the Straits"
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
Whether Parashot Mattot and Mas’ei are read together (as they are this year, as in most years) or separately (as they are in less than one-quarter of years), both are invariably read during the Three Weeks – the period of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av.
This is surely not coincidental: when Chazal set the annual Torah-reading cycle towards the end of the Second Temple period, they divided up the Torah such that certain parashot always coincide with specific junctures of our calendar.
The 244 verses of this double parashah divide very naturally into seven sections:
-laws of oaths (Numbers chapter 30);
-G-d’s command that the Israelites execute vengeance against the Midianites, and the subsequent battles and their aftermath (chapter 31);
-the Tribes of Reuben and Gad requesting permission to settle east of the River Jordan, and being granted this permission after promising to enter the Land of Israel and to fight for it together with the rest of the nation (chapter 32);
-a précis of the Children of Israel’s 40-year wanderings through the Sinai Desert (33:1-49);
-G-d’s command to the Children of Israel to inherit the Land of Israel and to expel the Canaanite inhabitants, the definition of the borders of the Land, and how the Land was to be divided up between the Tribes (33:50-35:8);
-the designation of six cities of refuge for accidental killers (35:9-34); and finally
-a brief recapitulation of women’s inheritance of the Land (chapter 36).
This is all taking place on the very threshold of the Land of Israel, on the east bank of the River Jordan, in the final few months before entering and conquering the Land. And in many ways, Parashat Parashot Mattot-Mas’ei constitutes the prelude to the Land of Israel.
Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei closes the Book of Numbers – the Book which had begun almost forty years previously. The Midrash notes that in the Creation narrative, “the word ‘light’ appears five times, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah… ‘G-d separated between the light and the darkness’ (Genesis 1:4) corresponds to the Book of Numbers, which separates between those who left Egypt and those who came into the Land” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:5).
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) writes: “The [theme of the] Book [of Numbers] is entirely mitzvot which applied only for the time that they were in the desert, and the miracles which were performed for them, to relate all the wondrous deeds that HaShem did for them. It then tells that He began to give their enemies to the sword before them, and how the Land would be divided among them. And none of the mitzvot in this Book apply throughout all generations, apart from a few mitzvot of sacrifices, which He had begun to command in the Book of Leviticus and whose explanations were left uncompleted there, and which He completed in this Book” (Introduction to the Book of Numbers).
The generation of “those who left Egypt”, in the words of the Midrash, died in the desert, building and leaving behind nothing of lasting value; and commensurate with this, most of the mitzvot they received would only apply for as long as they remained in the desert. When that generation passed, so did the mitzvot they were given.
But Parashat Parashot Mattot-Mas’ei is the generation of “those who came into the Land”, so the mitzvot which appear herein – oaths, inheriting the Land, the imperative to expel the hostile non-Jewish inhabitants, the borders of the Land, the cities of refuge, and women’s inheritance of the Land – apply for all generations.
And it is obviously significant that so may of the mitzvot which we read in this parashah which invariably falls during the Three Weeks of mourning the destruction of the Land of Israel are connected with building and preserving the Land of Israel.
The Three Weeks are classically referred to as “bein ha-metzarim”, literally “between the straits”, a phrase taken from the Book of Lamentations: “Judah has been exiled because of affliction and harsh servitude; she dwelt among the nations without finding rest; all her pursuers overtook her between the straits” (Lamentations 1:3).
“Bein ha-metzarim” is the narrative of how we lost our Land. On the 9th of Tammuz in the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign, after a year-and-a-half long siege, the Babylonian army finally breached the walls of Jerusalem. King Zedekiah, fleeing for his life, was seized by the Babylonians in Jericho; his sons were murdered as he was forced to watch, he was then blinded, and brought down to Babylon in chains.
On the 7th of Av Nevuzadaran, the chief executioner of Babylon, arrived in Jerusalem, and two days later on the 9th of Av burned the Holy Temple, the king’s palace, and all the great buildings of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1-10, Jeremiah 52:1-14).
At that time, the 9th of Tammuz was instituted as a fast day, and remained so throughout the 70-year period of destruction (Rosh HaShanah 18b; Tur, Orach Chaim 549).
Nearly 500 years later, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz and three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, destroyed the second Holy Temple. The original fast of the 9th of Tammuz was combined with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and the fast of the 9th of Av was intensified because of the additional tragedies which occurred on this date.
It is fundamental to Judaism that history is not random, that we are punished and rewarded measure-for-measure, and that specific times and the events that happen in those times have specific meanings. Hence it is no coincidence that the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the sin of the golden calf, and the 9th of Av, the day of the sin of the spies, echo through our history as days of disaster.
Neither is it coincidence that the parashot which we read between these two days of tragedy – “between the straits” – are saturated with the Land of Israel, and as such are the antidote to the spies’ sin of spurning the Land.
The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy c.1470-1550) derives some wonderfully optimistic and inspiring messages from the opening passage of Parashat Mas’ei, which tells of the forty-two stages of the journey from Egypt to the border of Israel: “‘These are the journeys’ (Numbers 33:1) – G-d wanted to inscribe Israel’s journeys in order to publicise their merits, when they followed Him ‘into the desert, into an unsown land’ , in the merit of which they entered the Land”.
He continues: “‘Moshe wrote’ – he wrote each place which they headed towards as well as the place which they had left, because sometimes the place they were heading for was the worst possible place and the place they were leaving was wonderful” (S’forno, 33:2). The S’forno’s implication is that this praises the Children of Israel, who were willing to follow G-d and Moshe not only from Egypt – a place of slavery –to the Land flowing with milk and honey (for which they had powerful incentives), but also from some very hospitable and comfortable desert oases to the harshest of locations.
The S’forno further continues: “‘And these are their journeys according to their goings forth’ – … [The Torah] also notes the journeyings, because leaving from place to place without knowing when in advance was very difficult, yet nevertheless that did not deter them. And so for every single one of these journeys, it says ‘and they travelled from such-and-such a place and they encamped in such-and-such a place”, because the journeying and the encampment were equally difficult”.
Of course at this time of the year we recall the sin of the spies which delayed us by an entire generation in the desert, and whose punishment we still suffer year by year at this time. But at this same time of the year, the Torah-readings infuse us with the inspiration that we did, indeed, show our love for G-d and faith in Him by following Him into the unknown wilderness.
And this same Torah-reading instructs us how to avoid committing sins and mistakes which cause us to lose the Land: “When you cross the Jordan to the Land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you; you shall destroy all their places of idolatrous worship; you shall destroy all their molten idols; and you shall demolish their idolatrous altars. Then you will inherit the Land and settle therein, for I have given the Land to you to inherit… But if you will not drive the inhabitants of the Land out before you, then those of them whom you leave will be as thistles in your eyes and thorns in your eyes, and they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell” (Numbers 33:51-55).
The Ohr ha-Chayyim (Rabbi Chayyim ben Attar, Morocco and Jerusalem 1696-1743) gives the reason for expelling all the inhabitants when commenting on the words “they will harass you on the Land wherein you dwell”: “Not only will they cling to that part of the Land that you did not merit to conquer; but even in those parts of the Land that you did merit to conquer and wherein you dwell they will harass you, saying: Get up, get out from our midst”.
You may live in part of the Land of Israel – but if you allow the inhabitants to remain in Shechem, their suicide terrorists will blow you apart at the hitch-hiking station in Jewish-inhabited French Hill in Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.
Little wonder that the Ohr ha-Chayyim is reputed to have written his commentary with Ruach ha-Kodesh (“divine inspiration”)! Two and a half centuries ago, he already warned us of precisely what is happening in Israel today. You may live in part of the Land of Israel – but if you allow the inhabitants to remain in Shechem, their suicide terrorists will blow you apart at the hitch-hiking station in Jewish-inhabited French Hill in Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv; if you allow them to remain in Tulkarem, they will massacre you in the Park Hotel in the Jewish city of Netanya; if you allow them to live in Jebel Mukhabber, they will crush you to death with bulldozers in Jaffa Street in the heart of Jerusalem; if you allow them to remain in Jenin, they will murder you in the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa.
The warnings are clear – and so are the promises. Our history bears ample witness to both. The Three Weeks contain an inherent dichotomy: this is the time both of destruction and of redemption. On the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, the mashiach was born (Yerushalmi Brachot 2:4, Eichah Rabbah 1:51; Midrash Abba Gurion et. al.). The 9th of Av is the day of both the deepest tragedy and the greatest celebration.
The Torah-readings for the Three Weeks capture this dichotomy perfectly. As we remember and mourn over the destruction of our two Holy Temples and the loss of our national independence, Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei leads us back to the Land of Israel – this time forever. In the words of the Midrash (Tanhuma, Shoftim 9; Yalkut Shimoni, Zechariah 581):
“Israel will dwell in their Land only in the third redemption; the first redemption was the redemption from Egypt, the second redemption was the redemption of Ezra – and the third redemption will never end”.