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| Published: July 18, 2022
This week’s Torah reading, Matot-Massei, begins with the laws of oaths. The Israelites wage battle against Midian, and the spoils are divided and tithed. The tribes of Reuben and Gad request and receive territory outside the mainland of Israel. Moses reviews the forty years of Israelite journeys through the desert. The Torah discusses the boundaries of Israel, its division amongst the tribes, the cities which the Levites would receive, and the cities of refuge. Tzelafchad’s daughters are restricted to marrying within their own tribe.
First Aliyah: A person who obligates him- or herself with a vow is required to fulfill the vow. Under certain circumstances, a husband or father can annul vows made by his wife or daughter. The Israelites were commanded to exact revenge from the Midianites for their part in seducing Jewish men to sin (described in the end of the Torah reading of Balak, Numbers 25). A 12,000-strong army of Israelites, led by Pinchas, waged battle against Midian. All adult Midianite males were killed, along with Balaam and Midian’s five kings. The women, children and battle spoils were brought back to the Israelite encampment.
Second Aliyah: Moses was enraged that the Midianite females were spared. “They were the primary culprits, the ones who seduced the Israelites and brought about the plague which killed so many!” Moses exclaimed. All the males, and all women who possibly could have been involved in the campaign of seduction, were killed. The soldiers were instructed how to purify themselves from the ritual impurity they contracted from contact with corpses in the course of battle, and are told how to kosher the food utensils which were among the spoils. The spoils of the war were evenly divided between the soldiers and the greater community. Tithes from the spoils were given to Elazar the high priest and to the Levites. The army officers counted the soldiers who returned from battle, and determined that not a single man was lost in the war. To show gratitude to G‑d for this miracle, the officers donated to the Tabernacle all the gold jewelry which they personally plundered from the Midianites.
Third Aliyah: The tribes of Reuben and Gad owned lots of cattle. Seeing that the eastern bank of the Jordan—the lands of Sichon and Og which they had just conquered—had abundant pasture, they asked Moses if they could remain and settle on the eastern bank. Moses angrily responds that they are following in the footsteps of the spies who were fearful of the Canaanites, did not want to enter the land of Israel, and discouraged the entire nation from doing so. The Reubenites and Gadites respond that they will leave their cattle and families behind in fortified cities, and all their men will proceed into Israel with their brethren and lead them in the conquest of the land. Only after all the land has been conquered and settled would they return to the other side of the Jordan.
Fourth Aliyah: Moses accepts the offer of the Reubenites and Gadites, and informs Joshua and Elazar the high priest of the agreement. These two tribes, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan, and conquer many of the areas wherein they encountered opposition. The Torah then recounts the journeys of the Jews in the desert, the 42 journeys which took them from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan.
Fifth Aliyah: G‑d instructs the Jewish people to eradicate all of Canaan’s inhabitants and destroy their idols, after crossing the Jordan River. The borders of the land of Israel are delineated. The land was to be divided by lottery amongst nine and a half tribes (Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh were going to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan).
Sixth Aliyah: G‑d appoints a representative from each tribe to divide his tribe’s portion of land between the tribal members. The Jews are commanded to provide the Levites with 48 cities where they would dwell—42 cities plus the six cities of refuge which would be designated. Along with these cities, the Levites were given expanses surrounding the cities for their cattle.
Seventh Aliyah: The Jews are commanded to designate six cities of refuge. These cities offer refuge to a person who inadvertently kills another. The murderer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the serving high priest. The Jews are enjoined not to take “blood money” from a murderer—intentional or unintentional—who wishes to lighten his sentence. In last week’s reading, G‑d instructed Moses to give the daughters of the deceased Tzelafchad his portion in the land of Israel. The elders of Tzelafchad’s tribe now protested that this would cause Tzelafchad’s grandsons—who could possibly be of another tribe—to inherit their mother’s properties, thus possibly transferring land from the portion of their tribe to another. G‑d therefore instructs Tzelafchad’s daughters to marry men from their own tribe, so that the land they inherit will remain in their ancestral tribe.
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