To Tell the Truth
וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה ה’ איש כי ידר נדר לה’ … לא יחל ככל היצא מפיו יעשה
“Moses spoke to heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying, ‘This is the matter which G-d has commanded: if a man takes a vow to G-d – according to whatever comes from his mouth, so shall he do.’” (Bamidbar 30:2-3)
Parshat Matot begins with the laws governing oaths and vows. However, whereas normally G-d told Moses to teach the laws directly to the Jewish people, in this case he curiously began by instructing the tribal leaders.
The Torah proceeds to detail laws concerning vows placed on oneself as well as vows between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters, laws which aren’t unique to the leaders but which are relevant to every individual Jew. Although Rashi offers a technical legal point to be derived from this curiosity, what lesson can we take from the Torah’s emphasis on teaching these laws to the heads of the tribes?
When Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky (1891-1986, a Torah great who was renowned for his devotion to honesty and always telling the truth) turned 80 years old, he began donning an additional pair of tefillin, known as the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam each morning. Because there is a legal dispute regarding certain technical details about the writing of the parchments in tefillin, some virtuous individuals have the custom of wearing a second set after they have taken off the primary set of tefillin, in order to fulfill the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam (circa 1100-1171).
Although Rabbi Kamenetzky certainly possessed the piety required for one who wished to take on this additional stringency, some of his students were puzzled by the fact that he had never done so previously. What suddenly transpired which made him change his practice?
When they asked him about this, he explained that many years previously, an elderly Jew in his minyan began to put on the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam at the end of the morning services. One of Rabbi Kamenetzky’s students asked him why he hadn’t also adopted this praiseworthy practice. In his humility, Rabbi Kamenetzky attempted to avoid the question by noting that the other man was much older, adding that if G-d would allow him to reach that age, perhaps he would also adopt the practice.
Although the comment was said only casually, Rabbi Kamenetzky immediately worried that his commitment to truth obligated him to fulfill his words, as our verses teach that, “According to whatever comes from his mouth, so shall he do” . Upon ascertaining the age of the man, he waited many years until he reached that age, at which point he immediately adopted the practice in fulfillment of his “word.”
From this story, we can appreciate that some commentators suggest that the mitzvah of honoring one’s promises and keeping one’s word was taught specifically to the tribal heads to emphasize the importance of serving as role models in keeping one’s word. We are unfortunately often reminded of the contrast between today’s political leaders and our Rabbis’ dedication to keeping their word. The Israeli politician Abba Eban once cynically remarked that “It is our experience that political leaders do not always mean the opposite of what they say.”
Although many of us don’t envision ourselves as leaders, this lesson is applicable to each of us. Whether as parents, bosses, or organizational officers, most of us have people in our lives who look to us to serve as moral guides. This week’s parshateaches that one crucial ingredient in successfully filling any leadership role is a strong dedication to honoring our commitments.
The War Is Over, But the Main Battle Lies Ahead
ויאמר אלעזר הכהן אל אנשי הצבא הבאים למלחמה זאת חקת ‘התורה אשר צוה ה
“Elazar the kohen said to the soldiers who came to the war, ‘This is the statute of the Torah which G-d commanded Moses.’” (Bamidbar 31:21)
This verse refers to a speech delivered by Elazar to soldiers returning from war. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say, “to the soldiers who came from the war,” instead of “to the soldiers who came to the war”?
There’s a thought-provoking story found in Duties of the Heart. A righteous man witnessed a soldier returning home from the battlefield. The soldier, flushed with excitement, eagerly shared with him some of his battlefield exploits and finished by saying, “Boy, am I tired of all this fighting. I could use a long rest!”
The righteous man replied, “Although you believe that the big battles have already been fought and that you’re coming home to rest, this is not the case. In fact, the battle you just concluded may be a minor one compared to what awaits you here — a battle in which you’ll be engaged for many years.”
The soldier was shocked. He had been led to believe that the war had not reached his hometown, and that he was headed home for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Why was this man insisting that the battle was even more severe back home?
The righteous man explained, “I’m not referring to a battle with guns and ammunition. There will be no need to shed blood or sleep in the fields with a weapon at your side. I’m referring to the battle that you’re going to face against your yetzer hara (evil inclination), the desire to sin. He presents a tougher challenge than any you’ve faced. He hides around every corner and uses any argument he can think of, and cares not a whit about ethical warfare. Worst of all, his morale never suffers, and he never surrenders or agrees to a cease-fire.
“He’ll try to convince you to act in ways that you know are wrong or harmful. He’ll try to persuade you to misuse your power of speech, regard others negatively, disregard your obligations to your parents, and consider your own needs before others. He will find obstacles to place in the way of your Torah study sessions; he will place thoughts in your mind during prayer. These challenges will require vigilance; your strongest weapon is the mitzvot — G-d’s commandments, which are very effective in combating the influence of the yetzer hara.
“Your success on the battlefield demonstrates your physical prowess, but this battle will be fought with moral might, and you must draw upon different resources to succeed.”
Following their remarkable success against the Midianites, Elazar sought to remind the Jews that there was a greater battle waiting for them back home — a war against the yetzer hara. To combat this adversary, Elazar spoke to the soldiers “who came to the war,” sharing with them the mitzvot of the Torah.
The yetzer hara is a formidable rival, but we are well-fortified against him — if we make use of the mitzvot, granted to us specifically for this task.
Honoring Your Committments
ויאמר משה לבני גד ולבני ראובן האחיכם יבאו למלחמה ואתם תשבו פה ולמה תנואון את לב בני ישראל מעבר אל הארץ אשר נתן להם ה
“Moses said to the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, ‘Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here? Why do you dissuade the heart of the Children of Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given them?’” (Bamidbar 32:6)
At the end of Parshat Chukat, the Jewish people conquered the lands of Sichon and Og, which were just across the Jordan river to the east of the land of Israel proper. In this week’s parsha, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses with a request. They noticed that these lands were particularly well-suited for raising animals. As these two tribes were blessed with an abundance of livestock, they asked for permission to receive and settle this area as their portion in the land.
Moses responded harshly, questioning why their brethren should go to battle to conquer the rest of the land of Israel while they remain behind living comfortably. He also argued that their actions could dissuade the rest of the Jews from wanting to enter and conquer the land, in a manner similar to the negative report brought back by the spies.
The tribes of Gad and Reuben clarified their intentions, explaining that after they built cities for their families and animals in this region, they would join the rest of the Jews in the battle for the land of Israel proper. Only after it was fully conquered and settled by their brethren would they return to their families. Moses then entered into a legally binding agreement with them to confirm their intentions and in fact, agreed to their request.
The commentaries explain that the two tribes always intended to assist in the conquest of Israel, but because they didn’t see this point as significant, they didn’t say it explicitly until pressed by Moses. Why then was it so important to him to make an explicit, legally-binding agreement with the tribes regarding this point?
In his work Shemen HaTov, Rabbi Dov Weinberger explains that Moses recognized their original good intentions. Nevertheless, he was concerned that after they actually built the cities for their families and animals, they would be tempted to reconsider their plans. After 40 years of wandering through the wilderness in pursuit of a stable home, it would be quite natural for them to be tempted to reevaluate their commitment to spend an additional 14 years helping their brethren conquer and settle the land of Israel.
To prevent this from occurring and to keep their actions consistent with their original intent, Moses insisted on making an explicit and binding agreement with them. Only if they fulfilled their end of the deal by assisting with the conquest of Israel would they be permitted to keep their land on the east side of the Jordan River.
This explanation brings to mind the following story. Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, known as the Alter of Novhardok, once was in doubt whether it was appropriate for him to go to the train station to greet a certain guest who was coming to town. Since it was the middle of the frigid winter, Rabbi Horowitz worried that perhaps he would decide against going not for the right reasons, but because it would have been cold or inconvenient. To remove this concern, he traveled to the train station and continued making his decision once he was already there.
Many times in life we are confronted with difficult decisions. When weighing the various factors involved, it is important to be aware of our personal biases and strive to reach conclusions based on pure, unbiased thinking.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Q: Parshat Matot begins with the concept of taking a neder, a vow to G-d. This concept seems difficult to understand; what is it all about?
A: The Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Yeshaya Hurwitz, 1560-1630) writes that if one wishes to understand the true significance and depth of any idea in the Torah, one need only examine its meaning in the place where it first appears in the Torah. In the case of a vow, Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr notes that it first appears in the beginning of Parshat Vayeitzei (Bereishit 28:20-22): Jacob took a vow, saying that “If G-d will be with me … then this stone which I have made as a pillar will become a House for G-d.” We similarly find in Psalms (132:2-5) the concept of a vow associated with Jacob’s idea of making a dwelling place for G-d: he (King David) swore to G-d and vowed to the Strong One of Jacob (G-d), “If I enter the tent of my home … until I find a place for G-d, resting places for the Strong One of Jacob.”
The Torah is teaching us that vows are connected to the idea of a Holy dwelling place for G-d. Indeed, Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that the Hebrew word for a vow, a neder (נדר) is linguistically derived from the word דירה לה (dira)– a dwelling place for G-d. It isn’t a coincidence then that this parsha is always read during the mourning period known as the Three weeks, when our focus should be on recognizing the tragedy of what we lost when the Holy Temple was destroyed, and on strengthening ourselves to build a resting place for G-d within us. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Upon hearing the request (Bamidbar 32:5) of the tribes of Gad and Reuben to dwell in the land to the east of the Jordan River and not in the land of Israel proper, Moses suspected that their intentions were similar to those of the spies and responded strongly and critically. After they clarified that they were indeed willing to take part in the battle to conquer the land of Israel on behalf of the other tribes, Moses acquiesced to their request. Why didn’t Moses ever ask forgiveness from them for falsely accusing them of improper motives and embarrassing them publicly? (Yishm’ru Daas)
During his 40-year leadership of the Jewish people, Moses endured a tremendous number of tests and personal affronts with tremendous humility. Why did he specifically get angry and rebuke the tribes of Gad and Reuben for their request to take their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan?
We read (Bamidbar 32:1-5) about how the livestock-rich tribes of Gad and Reuben asked Moses to receive the lands of Yazerand Gilad – lands east of the land of Israel, each well-suited for raising animals – in lieu of a portion in Israel proper. Moses responded rather harshly to this request, accusing them of abandoning their fellow Jews in their conquest of Israel. Despite learning that they always intended to join in the battle and to only inhabit these lands once the Jews were settled in the land of Israel, Moses still insisted that they enter into a legally binding agreement (Bamidbar 32:20-27) to confirm their intentions, before granting their request. Once Moses realized that he was mistaken about their original intentions, why would have he considered it necessary for them to enter into a formal agreement?
The tribes of Gad and Menashe asked Moses for permission to settle in the land to the east of the Jordan River. If they were satisfied to receive this land as their portion in the land of Israel, why would Moses continue to petition G-d to enter the land of Israel proper instead of being content that he was allowed access to this area? (Darkei HaShleimus by Rabbi Shloma Margolis)
In this week’s parsha, the tribes of Gad and Reuben requested permission to remain on the other side of the Jordan River, rather than entering the Land of Israel with the rest of the tribes. The reason for their request was that the land they currently occupied was good for grazing cattle, and they had an abundance of cattle. (Bamidbar 32:4)
In response, Moses criticized them for abandoning their brothers in a time of war. He also chastised them for dissuading the other tribes from entering the Land of Israel. This was the very the sin committed by the previous generation when they believed the negative report of the ten spies and failed to trust that G-d would bring them into the land. (Bamidbar 13:25-14:10)
- The tribes of Gad and Reuben based their desire not to enter the Land of Israel on material concerns, rather than on any lack of trust in G-d. In what way(s) is their preoccupation with material pursuits similar to the sin of the spies?
- During the negotiations, it is clear that Moses’ criticism of the tribes of Gad and Reuben was their preoccupation with material wealth rather than their unwillingness on their part to share in the military expedition (Bamidbar 32:16-24 and Rashi 32:16). Yet, after securing an agreement that they would be the vanguard of the military until the land was conquered, Moses granted their request (Bamidbar 32:28-33). How does the fact that they were committed to join their fellow Jews in battle address Moses’ primary concern of their preoccupation with money?
In Parshat Balak, we read about the devastating effects of Balaam’s plot to incite the Jewish people to immorality and idolatry. A devastating plague brought about the death of 24,000 Jews. In this week’s Torah portion, G-d ordered Moses to “take vengeance for the children of Israel against the Midianites” (Bamidbar 31:2). In subsequently conveying G-d’s will, Moses ordered his warriors to “inflict G-d’s vengeance against Midian” (Bamidbar 31:3). Why did Moses change the terminology, and what different (or additional) message is implied in that change?
The Medrash records a dispute regarding the manner of the Jewish war against Midian. One opinion maintains that they surrounded it from all four directions, while another opinion argues that they only surrounded it from three directions to give the Midianites a direction in which they could flee. Why would they give them an opportunity to escape? (Panim Yafos by Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz)
Q: This week’s parsha, Matot, mentions the death of Balaam. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) records that three of Pharaoh’s advisors were consulted regarding his qualms about the Jewish population. Balaam suggested the wicked plan and was killed, Job remained silent and was punished with tremendous afflictions, and Jethro disagreed, fled and was rewarded with descendants who were righteous Torah scholars. Why did Balaam, who deserved the harshest punishment for his active role in Pharaoh’s diabolical scheme, get off relatively easily with an instant death, while Job was forced to suffer tortuous pains throughout his life?
A: Rashi writes (Kiddushin 80b) that being alive is the greatest gift that G-d could ever give a person, regardless of what difficulties may transpire in his life. King David – who was no stranger to suffering – expressed this idea explicitly (Psalms118:18): יסר יסרני ק—ה ולמות לא נתני – “G-d afflicted me greatly, but at least He didn’t give me over to death.”
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that Job’s excruciating agony is still considered preferable to the quick death of Balaam due to the sheer fact that he remained alive. As we suffer various difficulties throughout our lives, it behooves us to recall this lesson. Every time we recite the aforementioned verse in Psalms during the Hallel prayer, we should be eternally grateful to G-d for the wonderful gift we call life! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
AN OFFERING YOU CAN REFUSE
“Moses spoke to the tribal leaders, to the Children of Israel saying: ‘This is the word that G-d has commanded.’” Bamidbar 30:2
To the tribal leaders – Why were these instructions given first to the tribal leaders, and only afterwards to the rest of the nation? He bestowed honor on the leaders by teaching them first, and only afterwards, all of Israel. – Rashi
Tribal leaders, to the Children of Israel – “To the Tribal leaders:” This teaches us the law of a highly proficient individual, who is qualified to rule on matters of vows. “To the Children of Israel:” This teaches us that three common men are also qualified to rule on matters of oaths. – Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 78a
To the tribal leaders – In the previous chapter, the Torah records how Moses was instructed to admonish Joshua to lead the people in exemplary fashion. Now he was tasked with issuing a similar exhortation to the tribal leaders, advising them of the importance of leading by example. This includes not only following the word of G-d with precision, but even keeping one’s own word. A leader is only effective if his followers feel that they can trust him. This is why the chapter dealing with vows begins with Moses addressing the tribal leaders. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Tur [O”C 551] writes that the custom in Ashkenaz was that exceptionally pious people would abstain from wine and meat not only during the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’av, but rather beginning from the 17th of Tammuz. Beit Yosef comments that the reason for this custom was because on the 17th of Tammuz, the sacrificial Temple offerings were abolished and therefore wine and meat, which played such a big role in those offerings, should be avoided as a means of expressing our sorrow. R’ Shlomo HaKohen of Vilna [Shu”t Binyan Shlomo] explains that the preceding Torah portion concluded with the laws of the Temple offerings. Therefore, this next portion dealing with vows and oaths that are often uttered to obligate oneself in bringing an offering was said specifically to the tribal leaders, for they are an example of exceptionally pious people who are expected to take into account the discontinued Temple offerings and accept upon themselves vows to “replace” them through special acts of penance. It is noteworthy that this Torah portion almost always occurs during the Three Weeks from the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha B’av.
“Moses spoke to the tribal leaders of the Children of Israel saying: “This is the word that G-d has commanded. If a man makes a vow to G-d or swears an oath; to establish a prohibition upon himself; he may not desecrate his word. He shall do all that he said.” Bamidbar 30:3
To the tribal leaders – The laws of oaths and vows apply to everyone equally, as both men and women of all ages are prone to uttering them. This reality means that the possibility for numerous violations of their laws is very real. Therefore, the tribal leaders were charged with the duty of ensuring that people not abuse this privilege. – Rabbi Yosef B’chor Shor
Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1838) explains that leaders often make public promises that they have no intention of keeping, but do so in order to pacify the people or win their votes. Thus, the first people instructed in the laws of keeping one’s vows and oaths were the leaders because they, more than anyone else, needed to hear this message most. Furthermore, their poor track record in this regard was especially likely to erode the people’s respect for the truth since people tend to take their cues from their leaders.
He May Not Desecrate His Word – Like, ‘Lo Yechallel Devoro’ he may not render his words hollow [meaningless]. – Rashi
He May Not Desecrate His Word – When a man fails to fulfill his vow he has profaned the name of G-d. – Sforno
“Hashem Elokim then formed the man, dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life. And so man became a living soul.” Bereishit 2:7
A Living Soul – He granted him the power of speech. – Targum Onkelus
“Animals and beasts are also called living souls. But, the one of man is the most alive for he additionally was given intelligence and speech.” – Rashi
Man undoubtedly possesses many wondrous faculties. Yet, what distinguishes man from animals is his power of intellect and speech. That unique attribute was acquired when in the act of the creation of man, G-d blew a breath into his nostrils, thus endowing him with a spark of the Divine which grants us intellect and speech. Our ability to use our speech to create a prohibited status on a previous permitted object, is a result of this unique creative power afforded us by the Almighty. When however, we render our speech meaningless by failing to fulfill our vows and oaths, we are in effect, disrespecting the Divine power granted us and simultaneously profaning G-d’s Name itself.
FEW AGAINST THE MANY
“Moses spoke to the people, saying: ‘Arm men from among yourselves for the army and they will be against Midian, to bring revenge of G-d against Midian…They were handed over from among the thousands of Israel, one thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed men for the army.’” Bamidbar 31:3:5
Men – This refers specifically to righteous men. – Rashi
Men – They had to be both warriors, and extremely G-d-fearing, with a desire to avenge G-d’s honor at the hands of the Midianites who had desecrated it through their despicable actions. – Medrash HaGodol
From among the thousands – The word used by the Torah is “Mei’alfei” which can be translated either as, “among the thousands,” or “from their leaders,” since the root of the word “Aluf,” also means “leader”. This teaches us that Moses chose the warriors from among the leaders of the people, and that they were upstanding and righteous men in keeping with G-d’s instructions. – Ksav V’Kabbalah
Unlike the nations of the world who populate their army with the strongest and most uncouth of men, the Jewish army consisted of its greatest sages and most decent and upstanding members. This is because we know that G-d is our warrior, and that it is He that we rely upon in battle. Jewish history bears witness to the fact that although the Jewish people have rarely outnumbered their enemies, they have enjoyed numerous stunning victories that left mouths agape the world over. This is not because we’re physically overpowering or shrewd tacticians. It’s because G-d watches over His children even when our loyalty is found lacking.
DISHING IT OUT THE KOSHER WAY
“Only the gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead. Anything of these materials that come into a fire, you must pass through the fire, and it will be purified; however, it must be purified with sprinkling water. But anything that was not placed in a fire you may pass through water.” Bamidbar 31:22,23
You Must Pass Through Fire – It must be purged the way it was used. Something used with heated water can be purged with heated water; something used for roasting, like a spit or a grill, one brings to white heat with fire. – Rashi
But Anything That Was Not Placed On A Fire – Anything not used with fire, such as cups, and flasks, which are used for cold food, and, therefore, did not absorb prohibited food.
You May Pass Through Water – Immerse them, and it is sufficient. This is only with metal utensils.
These verses contain many of the laws of koshering vessels that were used for non-kosher foods. Although the laws are somewhat complicated, there are some basic rules that once understood, greatly reduce the complexity of the process. Primarily there are two stages to the process: using heat to rid the utensil of any non-kosher absorptions that may still reside in the walls, and immersing the utensil in a kosher mikveh. Only a competent rabbi can offer advice on how and when these rules apply, but it is a process well worth the time and effort required to implement.
USING YOUR GIFTS TO SERVE G-D
“The army officers approached Moses…And they said to Moses: “Your servants have taken a census of the soldiers who went out to war and not one of us is missing. We therefore brought an offering for G-d. Any man who found a gold article: an anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an earring or clasp [has dedicated it for G-d] to atone for ourselves before G-d.” – Bamidbar 31:48-50
And not one of us is missing – They recognized that G-d had affected an incredible salvation on their behalf, and they wished to demonstrate their appreciation to Him. They also recognized that they had earned His protection by avoiding sin on the battlefield, which is something that they’d fallen prey to the first time they battled Midian. The reason they referred to it as “atonement,” was because although they hadn’t actually sinned, they’d contemplated it and wished to atone for that as well. – Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides)
And not one of us is missing – The numerical equivalent of these words in Hebrew is 718, which is the same as the word, “L’aveiros” [for sins]. This indicates that no man had fallen prey to sin on the battlefield. – Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1270-1340)
The gifts they brought were the jewelry they captured from the Midianites. They specifically offered the jewelry because they recognized that these implements are often used to make a woman appear more attractive and seductive. That is why they were present on the battlefield in the first place. The Jewish men saw them on the women who populated the battlefield, and were momentarily tempted to engage in inappropriate activities. Now that they wished to atone for that, they dedicated these very objects of their desire to be used in the service of G-d in the Tabernacle.
EVERYBODY NEEDS A RABBI
“The tribes of Reuben and Gad came and spoke to Moses…saying…’If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not bring us over the Jordan.’” Bamidbar 32:2-4
“Moses gave to them, to the tribe of Gad, to the tribe of Reuben and to half the tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, the empire of Sichon,… and the empire of Og,…the land along with the cities within their borders…” Bamidbar 32:33
And To Half The Tribe Of Manasseh – The tribe of Manasseh was not among the petitioners. Why then were they also granted the land on this side of the Jordan? Moses knew that the tribes of Reuben and Gad were overly dedicated to their material possessions, the source of their unusual request to forgo the spiritual benefits of Eretz Yisroel, in the first place. Consequently, he greatly feared for their spiritual well being and sought to ensure that they would have a constant source of inspiration to draw upon. The tribe of Manasseh possessed individuals of exception moral refinement and therefore Moses requested of them that half of their tribe reside among the tribes of Reuben and Gad in the capacity of spiritual mentors. – Netziv, Ha’emek Davar
By installing the people from the tribe of Manasseh among them, Moses was sending the people an unmistakable message. Regardless of how profitable a potential dwelling place may be, it cannot be seriously considered if it lacks basic spiritual accouterments. Without capable and inspiring spiritual leaders, these lands were not worthy of consideration as suitable for establishing a Jewish presence. Only once the tribe of Manasseh agreed to provide that dimension would Moses agree to their request.
YOU FORFEIT, YOU LOSE
“But if you do not do so, behold! – you will have sinned to G-d; know that your sin will encounter you.” Bamidbar 32:23
Behold! – you will have sinned to G-d – If you do not lead the rest of the tribes in battle to conquer the land of Israel before returning to build your own cities on the other side of the Jordan, you will then know that your allegedly pure intentions were impure from the start. – Sforno
Know that your sin will encounter you – Remember that you are always at risk to sin, even if you do meet the terms of our agreement, because by settling on the other side of the Jordan, you will have forfeited the protective shield offered by the land of Israel against engaging in idolatry. Indeed, this is what eventually occurred as the tribes of Reuben and Gad were among the first to commit idolatry and the first to be exiled. – HeEmek Davar
In his commentary on Parshat Devarim [3:12,] the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) expands on this theme and explains that the level of Torah study was significantly less outside of the land of Israel than inside, and this too contributed to their predilection for sin which subsequently led to their premature exile. In truth, he explains, the only reason any of this occurred was due to the episode of the Spies which resulted in their later having to capture the territory on the opposite side of the Jordan before capturing the land of Israel. Had they forgone the opportunity to send spies and entered the Land directly as was expected of them, they never would have encountered the territory across the Jordan until after conquering the Land, and Reuben and Gad would not have dreamed of forgoing their rightful place in the land of Israel .
Hey, I Never Knew That
“And they waged war against Midian, as G-d commanded Moses…” (Bamidbar 31:7). Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 6:10) and Nachmanides (Critique of Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 5) both understand that “as commanded Moses” is an allusion to a directive of the Oral Law regarding warfare. Nachmanides phrases the command as follows: “When we besiege a city, we must leave one way open for those who do not wish to fight, in order to allow them to escape. We learn from this to act with compassion even toward our enemies, even at times of war; and it also benefits us inasmuch as the enemy will not fight so hard when they know there is a possibility of escape …”
Word of the Week
“We shall go as חלוצים—chalutzim before G-d into the Land of Israel” (Bamidbar 32:32).
Rashi understands chalutzim as “quickly,” as does the Targum Onkelos who translates this as “promptly” or “enthusiastically.” Rabbeinu Yonah relates this to חלץ—chalatz which means to “gird” as “tie on weapons,” and hence the verse would read, “We shall go armed and ready.” Rav David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) understands this as “separate” or possibly “elite forces.” The Septuagint translates chalutzim as “advance guard,” and similarly in Modern Hebrew the term means “pioneer.”
“They also set fire to all their residential cities and to all their טירותם — tirotam” (Bamidbar 31:10).
Targum Onkelos translates tirotam as “their temples.” Rashi, however, translates the word as “their palaces.” The Malbimcommentary understands טירה as an observation point, and the Ralbag commentary as a “fortified city.” Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim, “Tir”) explains that a palace is named טירה — tirah because of the טורים — turim — rows of cut stones and decorative features. Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch relates the word to טור — tur, meaning rows of ramparts, and to נטר — neter, which means “to guard or protect.”
The Torah commands us to purify utensils by immersion in a mikveh, the mitzvah known as tevilat keilim. The metals specified in the verse are “gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead” (Bamidbar 31:22-23). Do metals not listed, such as aluminum, need to be immersed? Rav Moshe Feinstein maintains that one is not obligated to immerse aluminum utensils by Torah law, since instead of the Torah writing “all metal utensils” it specified six metals, implying that only these must be immersed. He does, however, rule that aluminum is at least like glass which according to Rabbinic decree must be immersed (Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 3:22). Rav Moshe Shternbuch agrees that aluminum must be immersed, but suggests that it may be a Biblical commandment to do so, because the Torah may have listed those metals because those were the metals that the Jews were dealing with at the time but it was not meant to be an exclusive list (Teshuvot Vehanhagot 1:451).
Parsha at a Glance
At the beginning of Parshat Matot, Moses delineates the laws regarding vows and oaths people make above and beyond the commandments in the Torah. While the general rule is that a person must stay true to his word and fulfill any voluntary vows or oaths, there are certain circumstances in which a young daughter or wife may be released from an oath by the father or husband.
The parsha continues with the Jewish people going to war against the Midianites in retribution for their campaign to seduce the nation into idolatry and immorality. The Jewish army emerged victorious, destroying Midian, plundering its cities and executing their leaders. Balaam, who initiated the plan in last week’s parsha, was also put to death by the sword. Of the 12,000 soldiers sent to wage war, not a single one was lost.
This week’s parsha also includes the laws of kashering various vessels, which became relevant amid the tremendous booty captured in the war, which was distributed among the soldiers, the nation, and the Tabernacle and Levites.
Seeing that the newly conquered territory was extremely advantageous for grazing their flocks, the tribes of Reuben and Gad petitioned Moses to be granted this land as their portion instead of a portion in the Land of Israel. Moses expressed grave concerns regarding this request, but acceded after the two tribes pledged to participate as equal partners with their brethren in the military conquest of the Land of Israel.