Parshat Mattot

Parshat Matot-Masei 5778 (Mussar)

This double-portion contains difficult and sometimes troubling text.  It ranges from the law of vows, the massacre and ethnic cleansing of the Midianites, purification, inheritance rules, tribes seeking to settle outside of Eretz Israel, sanctuary cities, and a listing of the journeys of the people of Israel through the desert.

Bamidbar 33:1

These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

Of the last, Maimonides wrote:

“At first sight, it appears to be entirely useless …”

To which Maimonides after long analysis, says, “In like manner there is good reason for every passage the object of which we cannot see.  We must always apply the words of our Sages: “It is not a vain thing for you” (Deut. 32, 47), and if seem vain, it is your fault.” (Talmud Yerashalmi Peah 1, 1).(Nehama Leibowitz)

Rashi’s commentary on the chronicle of the journeys is brief within the text, but includes an extensive opening introduction of its purpose:

These are the journeys : Why were these journeys recorded? To inform us of the kind deeds of the Omnipresent, for although He issued a decree to move them around [from place to place] … you will find that throughout the thirty-eight years they made only twenty journeys. I found this in the commentary of R. Moshe (Hadarshan) [the preacher] (Mid. Aggadah)  … R Tanchuma expounds it in another way.  It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed.  On the way back, the father began citing all of the stages of their journey, saying to him, ‘This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.’ – [Mid Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23.3]”

What are the two hidden ideas that Rashi seems to be finding in the text?  Rashi is directing us to see the kindness in difficulty — it could have been worse or it’s not as bad as it seemed.  Rashi connects that with a different notion, that retelling a story is somehow part of healing or assimilating the memory of a difficult experience. 

How do you understand the connection that Rashi is making between R. Moshe and R. Tanchuma’s explanations?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and other commentators remind us that Mitzrayim and Midian, have double meanings in Hebrew, referring to nations but also to constraint and strife, respectively. 

Could this parshah being referring to something deeper than its surface geography and chronicle?  Is it instead a concealed message about moving from constraint to freedom, in the midst of temptation, conflict, and diversion?  During those journeys do we need to know about vows, breaking vows, and the need for sanctuary?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayers … Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs praying.

What kind of a journey is worship?

Bamidbar 33:2

Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the LORD.

Midrash Tanchuma

The matter is comparable to a king whose son was ill. He brought him to a certain place to heal him. When they returned, his father began recounting the stages: Here we slept. Here we cooled off. Here you had a headache. Similarly the Holy One said to Moses: Recount to them all the places where they provoked me. It is therefore stated, these are the stages.

What is the illness? How do the journeys cure the illness? Why is it necessary to retell the story of the journeys – are they part of the healing process?

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz

In Hashem’s eyes, the most willfull transgressions are temporary illneses … Upon returning from the trip, Hashem does command Moshe to recount these sins, because in His overwhelming love for us, they are really only illnesses.  … One of the prerequisites to repentance is the knowledge that teshuvah does truly help to erase our sins from the heavenly blotter; otherwise, we would succumb to a feeling of hopelessness and not even try to mend our ways. 

Rabbi Wolbe says that retelling a story in vivid detail enables us to visualize the events, even if we have not experience it ourselves. Retelling the journey in the wilderness enables us to also heal and find teshuvah.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

[the journey in the wilderness] is not a straight line that proceeds in a clear route. This is true of life as well: A person’s path is never smooth and straight … the route is unclear, and the direction is unknown. … We constantly re-experience the same journeys; we stand and we fall. Some of us are swallowed up by the earth and some of us escape. Sometimes we sin and sometimes we act righteously. … Only at the end of the path will we come to the point at which it will be possible to understand both the “going forth” and the “journey.” Only then will we comprehend the meaning and the content of all our experiences over the years.

The journeys through the Wilderness are a metaphor for our personal experiences in life. Does Bamidbar speak to you in this way? Are you sometimes Moses or sometimes Korach? Do you  wish for the cucumbers of childhood? Or like Caleb and Joshua see beyond the giants of your fears? Or all of the them?

The following passage from Rabbi Dessler has a rare melding of kabbalah and mussar. Rabbi Dessler is providing a kabbalistic explanation of the mussar journey.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler

The idea that an individual has holy sparks which are his particular duty to redeem means that each person has his own alloted portion in kiddush Hashem [sanctifying God’s name by being holy]. All his abilities, his middot, and the tests he has to undergo are suited to this basic task. This task is assigned to him from Above, it constitutes his full spiritual potential, which in some context is referred to as his neshama [soul]. In this sense, a person’s neshama is not his ego, but – the particular ideal to which he should devote his life and the totality of spiritual powers granted him to complete his task. He becomes aware of his potential through the circumstances in which is he is placed and the tests he is given. Each test challenges him to realize part of his spiritual potential, or in other words, releases one of his holy sparks contained in his neshama.

He seems to be saying that our greatest flaws or greatest problems are the secret to discovering our purpose in life. Those flaws (or sins) hide our potential, and in some sense feed off of them. 

Rabbi Dessler goes on to warn that remorse that is too deep becomes an obstacle to teshuvah, because a person may feel that they cannot repent and be forgiven. Why is important to understand that overcoming one’s flaws are a vehicle for serving God?