The parashas for this Shabbat are Mattot and Massei, translated “tribes” and “journeys” and takes us from chapter 30 of BaMidbar (Numbers) to the end. Chapter 30 discusses the importance of vows. If you swear an oath, you’re obligated to make good on it. But this passage contains provisions by which a father or a husband could nullify an impulsive vow taken by a daughter or wife. But if the husband or father doesn’t intervene, the vow is binding. In each instance where a woman is excused from her vow it says “…and the Lord will forgive her.” Failure to fulfill a promise is sin! People today don’t attach much importance to their promises, but in the ancient world it was regarded with utmost seriousness. Husbands and fathers were expected to have the wisdom and maturity to protect their wives or daughters from the consequences of a vow made hastily. Ponder the tragedy of Yiftach (Jephthah – Judges 11), Israel’s judge, who made a terrible, reckless vow, costing the life of his daughter.
Messiah Yeshua said we shouldn’t swear oaths at all! Firstly, we are prone to fail, and when we break a vow we dishonor God – and the world is watching us. Secondly, as Yeshua’s followers we are called to a higher standard. We, of all people, should have a reputation as those whose word is good. So let your “yes” be yes, and your “no” no. God is truth, and His people must be people of truth and integrity – especially in weightier matters such as testifying in court, and in honoring our marriage vows.
Chapter 31 makes some people very uncomfortable. God commanded Israel to exact His vengeance on the Midianites. They were to be annihilated and their cities burned. The reason was that Midian conspired with Moab to seduce Israel by sending out their beautiful women to entice our men to sacrifice to Ba’al. The sacrificial ceremonies of Ba’al were highly sexual and barbaric in nature. Because Israel participated in such immorality, 24,000 of our people died by a divine plague. So, it isn’t as though God let Israel off the hook. But the Midianites were condemned for their part in this catastrophe. In the battle against Midian, Balaam the seer was also put to death. He was the one who devised the plan to seduce the Israeli men to come to Midian’s religious orgy, and thus bring God’s curse upon themselves. For that, Balaam is, for all time, held in disgrace. Woe to those who cause others to stumble and sin!
In chapter 32 the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, asked Moses to be allowed to settle the land east of the Jordan. Their apparent reluctance to cross over and accompany their brothers in fighting the Canaanites angered Moses. But an agreement was reached: their wives, young children, and livestock could remain there, but the men would have to accompany the other tribes to wage war inside Canaan. Once the land was conquered, they could return. This tells me that God’s people living outside of Israel still have an obligation to actively seek its good.
In chapter 33 God commands Moses to record, for posterity’s sake, all the stages of Israel’s journeys. An important historical journey like this should never be forgotten or obscured on account of the passage of time.
Chapter 33 also records Aaron’s death. In fact, it is recorded down to the year, month and day! Verse 38 says it was the fortieth year of our wilderness journey, on the first day of the fifth month. That means Aaron died on the 1st of Av, 1406 BC – at 123 years of age! For how many individuals in the Bible do we have that precise a date? And why Aaron? Perhaps because he was Israel’s very first High Priest. Perhaps also for the sake of future record-keeping of the years of tenure for future High Priests. And, perhaps in the big picture, it’s because all of Scripture points us to our heavenly High Priest, Messiah Yeshua, whose death meant life for the world!
At the end of chapter 33, on the plains of Moab, at the threshold of the Land of Promise, God directed Israel to completely drive out the Canaanites, and destroy all their idols and altars. Adonai warned that if we failed to follow through, there would be future troubles.
Chapters 34 and 35 include Israel’s boundaries and land allotment by tribe, and the command to establish Levitical cities and cities of refuge – places to which a man might flee who accidentally killed another. There’s an obvious distinction between manslaughter and premeditated murder. These cities of refuge were crucial. Blood feuds, so common to the Middle East, were not to be part of Israeli life. We were not to take matters into our own hands. God’s justice was always to prevail.
Our Torah portions end with an admonition that daughters must not be cheated of their inheritance if there was no son born to the family. They were to be guaranteed the preservation of their family estate. But in such cases, daughters were required to marry within their tribe, lest we end up with inter-tribal hostility over land disputes. After all, the allocation of the Land was at God’s direction. It was never ours to sell or buy in any permanent way. A person might go into debt and have to sell it into consignment for a period of time, but at the Jubilee Year all properties were to revert to their original families.
Massei means ‘journeys’. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the end of the journey marks the end of responsibility. But as in the case of Israel’s journeys and entrance into the Land of Promise, that’s where the real work begins – the pursuit of justice, faithfulness, and integrity. The next time you find yourself at a transition point, perhaps a move, or a career change, or entering a new stage in life, remember that your conduct is on open display. God is watching, and so are those around you. Be intentional about things. Do your work diligently. There’s a saying: “The man who rolls up his sleeves seldom loses his shirt.” So keep at it – whatever it is that God has for you, and do it with excellence!