This Week’s Torah Portion – Parashas Matot, Masei (Numbers 30-36)

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Parasha Matot is Numbers 30:2–32:42, and Masei is Num. 33-36.

* Num. 30:2-17 assumes that all adult women are married. By giving the husband 24 hours to nullify the wife’s vow, it assures him that he is head of the household.

* Num. 31:1. The Lord spoke to Moses: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

God and Torah are A OK with vengeance. Moshe’s final mission is annihilation of Midian. What does God mean by “avenge”? God wants retribution for the Midianites seducing Israel into worshiping Baal-peor while the Israelites want revenge for the devastating plague that followed that worship. How hard was it to tempt the Israelites into screwing Midianite women? There’s a human tendency to hate those who present us with temptations we can’t resist. Most people prefer to hate others than to hate their own moral weakness.

This repeated invocation of “gathered to your kin” indicates that ties of blood are important in the Torah world view.

* Was Balaam a good guy or a bad guy? Num. 31:8 says the Jews slew Balaam. Yet we use his words in the Jewish prayer book.

* Dennis Prager: “What did God command [about Midian]? Retribution. There is no other specific command from God. It is all from Moses. Moses does all the commanding of killing. Did Moses do exactly what God wanted?”

* Num. 31:14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Dennis: “The ones who caused the problems were the ones who you spared…so that the Lord’s community got the plague… I do not believe that God wanted the children of Midian killed.”

“They [the Israelites] didn’t kill the women and children. Obviously it is Moses interpreting God’s command. The Israelites got the same command. Retribution. Moses relayed it and the Israelites did what they understood as retribution — kill the men. But that’s it.”

“I think Moses did misinterpret [God’s command]. Maybe God wasn’t vague. Maybe the Israelites understood Him perfectly. Or you have to argue that everyone got it wrong except for Moses.”

“Moshe misinterprets God’s command with the rock…and says we will bring forth water from the rock, not God. Moses is old, angry… Moses is over-compensating for his error that Pinchas corrected when in front of Moses, a Midianite woman is seducing an Israelite man and Pinchas slays both of them. It is clear that God thought this was right because it was unbelievably brazen. In front of Moses, they announced they were having sex and worshiping false gods.”

“We do not have a hint that the Jews obeyed Moses’s command. It is clear that his authority has waned. Maybe for humanitarian [reasons] or maybe because they still like Midianite women, it is clear that they didn’t do it because it always adds they did as God commanded. They never leave it up in the air as to whether or not they obeyed.”

Moses was over-compensating for having married a Midianite wife. This was his way of saying that I will not be swayed by my own personal inclination towards Midianite women. His father in law, Jethro, was a Midianite priest who nursed Moses to health and it is to him that Moses goes to for advise.

Earlier in Exodus, Moses was saved by the daughter of the Pharoah. The Torah does not portray the Jews as the good guys and the goyim as bad guys.

* Num. 31:54. A midrash says that the Jews stripped the Midianite women of jewelry, but they did not rape them: “Each of us had gone into the houses of the Midianites, into the bedchambers of their kings. And we desired their daughters, pretty and beautiful, delicate and tender; and we unfastened the garlands, the gold crowns from their heads; rings from their ears, necklaces fro their necks, chainlets from their arms, chains from their hands, signet rings from their fingers, clasps from their breasts. Nevertheless, not one of us was joined with one of them in this world, so as not to be with her in Gehenna in the world to come.”

* Num. 32: 1-30: The Gadites and Reubenites want to help Israel but they don’t want to live there because they can make more money living elsewhere. Sound familiar?

Dennis Prager on Num. 31-33: “The truth is, who has suffered as much as Jews historically? I can’t think of any group who has suffered as long as the Jews have.” Do Jews win the Victimhood Sweepstakes? And what is the prize for that?

“If you let the Canaanites live with you, they will probably seduced you to their values… And then I, God, will dispossess you. It is hard to make a monotheistic world… At least half of the Jews of the world are not God-oriented.”

“If God took the Jews out of Egypt just to free slaves, then God is a racist. Why didn’t He take ever group out?”

“It is not possible for Jews to think they are better than everyone else when they read the Torah because it describes them as worse than everyone else.”

* Numbers 34: God tells the Jews the boundaries for Israel to let them know not to conquer more and not to become an empire.

* Cities of refuge. There are no accidents in Torah. If you sin accidentally, you have to bring a sin offering. If you kill someone accidentally, you have to flee to a city of refuge and stay there until the High Priest dies. You can’t just pay off the family for your killing.

* This week’s Torah portion is concerned with vows. It doesn’t like people making vows. The Torah enforces all sorts of restrictions about vows. The Torah lets men feel in charge because they have 24 hours to revoke a wife or daughter’s vow. I think this is more about a man feeling in charge of his domain than actually giving men power. It is similar to the Torah’s approach to slavery — evolutionary not revolutionary. The Torah makes slavery difficult. It makes it difficult to annul the vows of his wife and daughter, giving him but 24 hours.

* Do modern men need to man up and take charge of their households? I was raised to believe that the man has the final vote in the home. He’s the one in charge because he is more rational and less ruled by his emotions. I had this modern atheist Jewish girlfriend who said to me, “You are so afraid to set limits on me, but when you do, I’m just a meek little lamb.”

* The Torah doesn’t like people taking on unnecessary religious restrictions. All religions tend to ascetism, to a hatred of pleasure. One of the things I appreciate about many Hasidic Jews, as opposed to the more Lithuanian strands of Judaism, is how much they enjoy life.

* Torah has guidelines for everything, even taking on ascetic practices. If you want to afflict yourself, the Torah has guidelines.

* Another point this Torah portion emphasizes is the sanctity of speech. Words are things. They matter. They have power. You can create your own halachic (Jewish law) status through vows. I am impressed when I meet someone who takes language seriously. I like people who obey the laws of proper usage aka spelling and grammar. I respect people who say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s a great guide to someone’s character. I find that the verbally slick are usually rascals. One mark of a good man is that he will take trouble with his words and be willing to be awkward to find the right meaning.

* Moshe tells the Israelites to take vengeance against Midian (Num. 31) but when they bring back women alive, he gets mad and commands that all women who’ve had sex must be slaughtered. It’s easy to read the Koran and say it is a bloodthirsty book but so is this week’s parasha.

* When Moshe commands the Jews to wipe out the Midianites, he does not say anything about making exceptions for the mentally ill. Nor does the written Torah make any exceptions for capitol punishment for the mentally ill. So this freak in New York, Levi Aron, who apparently tortured and murdered a kid, Leiby Kletzky, should fry. I don’t buy that you never execute the mentally retarded. If they are not smart enough to know that it is wrong to murder people, then why do they try to get away? Why don’t they just hang around the murder site and tell people, yeah I did it? If they don’t know murder is wrong, then that is an argument that they should be executed so they don’t murder again.

* Kosher utensils are a far greater concern of Torah (Num. 31:23) than they are of me. I gotta face it. The Torah is suspicious of the world outside of Torah and things from the outside world that want to enter the Torah world have to go through a trial by fire, including would-be converts. A big concern of Torah is keeping Jews separate from non-Jews. You can’t just say, “I need to love my neighbor as myself” and go out and bang shiksas.

* Jews are good at pointing out flaws. The Jewish tradition argues with God. The midrash finds flaws in Moshe’s behavior. Jews have often been societal revolutionaries. Jews are good at deconstructing society and finding its flaws. Most Jews are not radicals but many radicals are Jews.

* Twenty three verses on how the booty is given out. It is to make war more civilized.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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