Making Aliya
Making Aliyaצילום: Vaad HaRabbanim

With the double parashah parashah Mattot-Mas’ei, we conclude the Book of Numbers.

It opens a year and two weeks after the Exodus, the Children of Israel still encamped at Mount Sinai, and closes with the Children of Israel encamped on the east bank of the River Jordan, across from Jericho, just several weeks before the exile was to end, poised to cross the river into their homeland to begin the next phase of their national history.

Thus the Book of Numbers is a bridge which both connects the generation of slaves which left Egypt, cowed and beaten and submissive, psychologically incapable of fighting for its own freedom, with the free generation which grew up in the desert, unfettered by slavery, proud and fierce and strong, yearning for its own sovereign national independence and willing to fight for it, and also separates between those generations.

The final several chapters of Numbers record the Jews’ first military confrontations with hostile nations – the Canaanite king of Arad (21:1-3), the Amorites (21:21-32), Og, king of Bashan (21:33-35), and the Midianites (31:54).

Parashat Mattot records the Jews’ first settlements in Israel: the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh began to settle and build their cities in trans-Jordan (32:1-42), after promising to take full part in the coming wars to conquer the Land of Israel proper, west of the River Jordan.

Parashat Mattot concludes with Nobah’s conquest: “Nobah went and captured Kenath with its suburbs, and he called it Nobah, by his own name” (32:42).

Now there is a peculiarity here in the text: וַיִּקְרָא לָה נֹבַח בִּשְׁמוֹ, “and he called it Nobah, by his own name”. The Torah vowelizes the word “it” defectively: לָה instead of לָהּ. That is to say, the mappik (the dot in the middle of the ה) is missing.

Rashi addresses this grammatical peculiarity:

“There is no mappik in the heh of the word לָה; and I saw in the teachings of Rabbi Moshe the Preacher [2] that this is because the name was not sustained permanently, which is why the heh is ‘weak’ [i.e. unaspirated, without the mappik], so it is homiletically interpreted to mean לֹא, ‘not’ [suggesting that one day it would not be called Nobah any more]. But I wonder how he would explain the other two places where this word appears in the same form: ‘And Boaz said to her... [ לָה instead of לָהּ]’ (Ruth 2:14), and ‘to build her [ לָה instead of לָהּ] a house’ (Zechariah 5:11)”.

The Ramban cites this comment of Rashi’s, and responds to it:

“Behold – even though the Rabbi [Rashi] is ‘a treasury replete with knowledge’ [2] of Torah, halachah, and homiletic expositions, he overlooked what [the Rabbis] said in the Midrash, Ruth Rabbah 5:5. [Ruth said to Boaz], ‘I am not even as one of your maidservants’ (Ruth 2:13), and he said to her, ‘G-d forbid! You are not of the maidservants, but of the Matriarchs!’”.

We pause for a moment to explain what this means: the Book of Ruth continues with the words וַיֹּאמֶר לָה בֹעַז, “Boaz said to her at the meal-time: Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your bread in the vinegar; so she sat at beside the reapers, and he gave her cooked grain, and she ate and was satiated, and even had some left over” (Ruth 2:14).

It is this verse which begins with the words וַיֹּאמֶר לָה בֹעַז, “Boaz said to her”, without the mappik in the heh.

The Midrash homiletically interprets לָה as a negation. Boaz was telling Ruth: No – you are indeed not one of the maidservants! You are among the Matriarchs!

We now return to the Ramban’s citation of the Midrashic exposition of the third example of לָה without the mappik:

“Similarly, ‘And he told me to build her [לָה, without the mappik] a house in the land of Shinar’ (Zechariah 5:11), teaching that a lie cannot bring salvation”.

Zechariah was among the very last Prophets, prophesying during the reign of Daryavesh (Darius) II, meaning during the Return to Zion at the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. He had been born in exile in Babylon, made Aliyah when Koresh (Cyrus) issued his famous declaration allowing – even encouraging – the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple, and began his Prophetic ministry about 17 years later.

As one of the Prophets of the Return to Zion, Zechariah’s prophecies begin with visions of the new rebuilt Jerusalem and the Holy Temple that was to be built within it.

He then continues with prophecies of and warnings against the sins that the Jews would commit during their time on their Land, and the punishments that G-d would inflict on them as a consequence.

It is in this context that the Prophet envisions an “ephah” (Zechariah 5:6), meaning a measuring-vessel whose volume was one ephah (the largest of all Biblical units of volume, approximately 25 litres or 6½ US gallons), which represented how G-d measures the people’s sins to punish them accordingly.

As the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) explains, “The meaning of ‘ephah’ is the Hashem measures the thoughts of people of evil”.

Who were these “people of evil”?

– “The families of Israel who remained in Babylon, and did not listen to Hashem’s command through His prophet to come to the Second Holy Temple” (Ibn Ezra, commentary to verse 9).

The Prophet continues with his vision:

“I said to the angel who was talking to me: To where are they leading this ephah?”

And the angel’s answer is the important verse here:

לִבְנוֹת לָה בַיִת בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר, “To build her a house in the land of Shinar” (verse 11), writing לָה without the mappik in the ה.

Explains the Ibn Ezra:

“Because they will hold her there against her will, because of her sin of not wanting to come to [participate in] building the Holy Temple”.

As with the word לָה at the end of Parashat Mattot which indicates that the name “Nobah” was only temporary, so too the Jews’ dwelling in Babylon was inevitably temporary.

And more than that – those who insisted on remaining ion Babylon faced punishment from G-d.

What was their punishment?

– The inference is that those who refused to leave exile and come back to Israel when they had the opportunity were eventually punished by being held back forcibly in Babylon, maybe even when they wished to leave.

Israel was fore-ordained to have three Redemptions:

  • The first was from Egypt, when Moshe led us out into the desert and 40 years later Joshua led us into Israel.

  • The second was the Redemption from Persia/Babylon, led by Zerubavel, later by Ezra and Nehemiah.

  • The third is the Redemption which has begun in our generations.

The first Redemption is the paradigm for them all. And all those millennia ago in Egypt, some 80% of Jews preferred to remain in Egypt – including some of the most devout and religious Jews, those who argued that the time for Redemption had not yet come, that we are forbidden to leave exile ahead of G-d’s schedule (sounds familiar?).

Those were the four out every Jews who died in Egypt during the ninth plague, the Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21-23; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Bo, Pis’cha 12; Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 13; Tanhuma, Beshallach 1 et al.).

Those Jews who didn’t want to leave Egypt were punished measure-for-measure by remaining in Egypt, dead and buried.

The same in the second Redemption: Those Jews – at least some of them – who preferred to remain in exile in Babylon and not to return to Israel when G-d commanded them to, were punished by later being forcibly held back in Babylon even when they later wanted to make Aliyah.

And in our generation of Redemption?

Most of the world’s borders are still open…though over the last year or two, we’ve already had a foretaste of how borders can be closed without warning.

The reverse is also true: the Midrash notes that when Assyria invaded and conquered Israel (the Northern Kingdom), the first Tribes they defeated and exiled were Reuben, Gad, and the half of Menashe who dwelt in trans-Jordan (1 Chronicles 5:26).

Now even though trans-Jordan (the region currently occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) is part of the complete Land of Israel, it has lesser sanctity than cis-Jordan, and ideally the Children of Israel should have conquered western Eretz Yisra’el before expanding the borders east of the River Jordan.

Instead, those two-and-a-half Tribes settled trans-Jordan even before the nation had entered the Land of Israel proper.

Hence the Midrash’s exposition that “their gifts were not from G-d, rather they seized them for themselves…they were wealthy with huge herds, and they treasured their material possessions, so they settled themselves outside of the Land of Israel, which was why they were the first to be exiled” (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7).

So when Nobah conquered a city in trans-Jordan and settled it, וַיִּקְרָא לָה נֹבַח בִּשְׁמוֹ, “and he called it Nobah, by his own name”, it was destined to be only temporary because in a region which was not yet Israel.

It’s a lot to derive from one missing mappik, לָה instead of לָהּ, but such is the Torah: it oft-times teaches us vast lessons with exquisite subtlety.

It is no coincidence that ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), we invariably read Parashat Mattot (usually, as this year, combined with Parashat Mas’ei) during the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of Israel.

It is precisely during this time in which we mourn past destruction, and which we pray will speedily become a time for celebrating the third and final and complete Redemption, that the Torah reminds us of the disastrous consequences of attempting to subvert the Redemption.

And particularly in these volatile days, as certainties of centuries totter and collapse within weeks if not days, one of the only certainties we have is that ultimately G-d controls history and is bringing His people back home to Israel.

The way is still open, the gates are still open.

For how much longer? And how much warning will there be before the way is blocked and the gates slam shut?

Only an irresponsible fool would attempt to predict that.


[1] Rashi cites רַבִּי מֹשֶׁה הַדַּרְשָׁן dozens of times in his commentaries to the Tanach and the Talmud. Very little is known of him, beyond that he is assumed to be the son of Rabbi Yehudah the preacher, that he was among the first of the Rishonim, and that he lived in Narbonne in Provence (in south-eastern France) in the early 11th century.

[2] Hebrew אוֹצָר בָּלוּם, the appellation which Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi (“Prince”, meaning Head of the Sanhedrin) applied to Rabbi Akiva (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1:18); Issi Ben-Yehuda also praised Rabbi Akiva with the same expression (Gittin 67a).