Parashas Mattos/Masei – Know where you came from...
This week we have the final sedra in the book of Bamidbar which also happens to be a double sedra, and the longest leining in the whole Torah with 244 possukim.
Parashas Mattos kicks off with the first perek dealing with vows, oaths and the ability to annul them under certain conditions. What is the connection to what was mentioned in the previous chapter in Parashas Pinchas concerning the Yom-Tov offerings with this seemingly unconnected section on vowels and oaths, I hear you ask? This juxtaposition of pereks teaches us that whoever vows to offer a sacrifice is obligated to fulfil his promise and can not rashly take an oath or vow without the intention of fulfilling it, as it states in the Torah “he shall not desecrate his word, according to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do” [30:3]. The Midrash brings down three situations in which someone might find themselves making a vow or an oath; In order to do a teshuva for a sinful habit one may take a vow to strengthen his resolution against doing it, to pursue a mitzvah which has presented itself to him and he wishes to make sure he doesn't miss out on the opportunity, and we learn that there is a tradition from Yaakov to make a vow in times of distress. The annulment of vows in particular is the focus of the main chunk of our first perek as saying these vows is a lot easier than getting out of them. Thankfully for us men however, we have the halachic ability to annul the vows of our wives and unmarried daughters as women do tend to talk a lot, and you never know what could have been said, ;-)! Concerning our own vows, it is customary to undertake a process of the annulment of all vows in front of three men before Rosh Hashannah so that we can go into the new year clean of any unknown obligations which we can't undertake as we don't even remember them or worst still we don't want to fulfil them. Either way we can be absolved on the basis that our declaration was taken without the full awareness of its implications, otherwise we wouldn't have done so... the vow is therefore considered an error and becomes void. What we can learn from this section is how important it is that we guard our words wisely, even a simple statement like 'I will see you later' could be considered a halachic vow and therefore could then obligate that person to actually see them later! A cheeky way out of this problem, which is widely practised, is to add the words 'blee neder' (without vow) after making declarations for example... “I will be in the Beis Midrash when the world cup final is on, blee neder”.

As Parashas Mattos develops, and especially in Parashas Masei, it is clear that Bnei Yisrael are preparing to enter the land of Eretz Yisrael. The first action to be undertaken which was discussed at length in last week's Dvar Torah, is that of avenging those pesky Midyanites who caused the nation to sin so tragically with the guidance of Bilaam and his devious plot. According to Rashi, all of the tribes, including Levi were equally represented in the fighting force and they were accompanied by Pinchas who technically started the war by slaying Zimri and Cozbi. According to Or HaChaim, Pinchas's presence was of huge necessity as Moshe understood that the nation needed his merit in order to be successful in the ensuing battle. We also learn out from this episode the greatness of Moshe as a leader as according to Midrashim which are quoted by Rashi, he had already been informed by Hashem that he would die after this war, just before the nation was to enter the land but this did not cause him to delay in carrying out his command and we see that he proceeded with vigour to carry out the mitzvah, regardless of the fact that he could have postponed the war several years in order to lengthen his life.
So with 12000 men (1000 from each tribe), the small Jewish army proceeded towards the 600000 strong Midyanites and although the Midyanite army vastly outnumbered the Jewish forces, Bnai Yisrael miraculously overpowered the enemy soldiers and slew the all. Amongst those killed the Torah describes how “they killed the (five) kings of Midyan along with the slain ones... and Bilaam... they slew with the sword” [31:8]. It is brought down in Midrashim that Bilaam had come to Midyan to claim his fee for his successful plan to induce the Jewish men to sin which had caused the death of 24000 Jews through plague. Unfortunately for him, he had come at a time when the Jewish nation were about to attack the Midyanites and thus his greed finally got the better of him, along with some perfect timing by Hashem, and he was “slew with the sword” on the battlefield. The mefarshim ask, why does the Torah specify here that he was killed with a sword? If we know that the Torah doesn't waste a single word then why do we need this seemingly irrelevant detail on how he met his final fate? As they go on to explain, it is significant to specify that he was killed by the sword as originally Esav was blessed with the sword of murder and violence, and Yaakov was blessed with the voice of prayer and prophecy (Parashas Toldos). Since the evil Bilaam had tried to seize Yaakov's blessing and use it to curse Israel, now Israel used Esav's blessing, the sword against him... touché! A final nice point to note about the battle against the Midyanites (and then we won't speak about them for another year as they are beginning to drag on) is that the Torah emphasizes the honesty of the Jewish fighters, when it states that... “They took all the booty and all the captives of people and animals... to Moshe, Elazar... and to the Childen of Israel...” [31:12]. Rashi notes here how even warriors were righteous and scrupulous, something unheard of in warfare today!

Parashas Masei begins with the Torah summarising the entire route which was followed by Israel from the exodus from Egypt until they stood poised to cross the Jordan to enter Eretz Yisrael. Ramban notes that the Torah stresses that G-d commanded Moshe to record these places to insinuate that great secrets are contained in the forty-two journeys. In fact, these forty-two places are said to allude to the mystical Forty-two Letter Name of G-d and this is why you will notice that most minhagim for this leining prevent interruption during the reading of these places. As previously mentioned, the Torah is very efficient and does not waste neither words nor letters. When analysing the journeys described in Parashas Masei, this very large bulk of text seems to be a bit superfluous and long winded. When the Torah summarises the journeys the nation of Israel took through the desert, it constantly repeats names of places... “They journeyed from Rameses and encamped in Succoth. They journeyed from Succoth and encamped in Etham. They journeyed from Etham...etc” [examples from 33:5-7], why do we need a constant repetition of the place they started off from, surely we know if they journey from this place then the next journey would start off from there? And this is the case for nearly 50 possukim in this week's second sedra! The mighty Rabbi Tatz gives over a very nice life lesson to answer this query. He teaches that whenever we make a spiritual journey to achieve growth, we must be sure of two things; firstly- where we are coming from, and secondly- what our goal/destination point is. We have to know who we are and where are journey began from and where we want to get to. This is why the Torah repeats the journeys destinations and origins; to teach us that whenever we are making our personal journey we must be conscious and sure of the point of origin and goal, even if we think it might be obvious or clear, we must still make it concrete in our minds and have it clear and in our conscious. A problem I have found amongst some Baal Teshuvahs is that they try too hard to forget their backgrounds and wipe out memories of their past. To a certain extent this is necessary for the more cruder experiences they might have been exposed to but one must always remember what he has achieved and use it as a spring board to try and produce more growth and with Hashem's aid we can plan more and more journeys throughout our lives. In order to achieve this growth we must also set and state these firm goals before we even set out so that we can stick to them rigidly and focus on them without deviation until we have achieved them.
I hope that we are all zocha to always be on new journeys after completing the old ones successfully and that we are able to look back with pride at how far we have come, no matter what point we started from. Shabbat Shalom!
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, Jerusalem)

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