Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot 5768/ July 26, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Matot and Desire


Rabbi Shlomo Ze’ev Pik

Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute of Higher Torah Studies

Parashat Matot deals with three major subjects that hardly seem connected.  The reading begins with Moses addressing the heads of the tribes on the subject of voluntary vows and oaths (30:2-17).  The second subject is the war with Midian that completes the narrative about the seduction of Israelites by Midianite women at the end of Parashat Balak and the beginning of Parashat Phinehas.  The account in Matot includes a description of the battle itself, Moses’ anger at the people who brought home Midianite women as captives, and instructions by Eleazar the Priest regarding ritual cleansing of the articles taken in battle. Further, we learn of the levy given to the Lord from the booty and the contribution to the Levites, as well as the commander’s contribution for their soldiers’ safe return (chapter 31).   The third and final subject in this week’s reading is the proposal made by two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, to receive their allotment of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The Torah gives us Moses’ reaction and the tribes’ response, and the agreement that was ultimately reached, giving land in the Transjordan to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh.

Parashat Mas’ei also deals with three subjects:   the journeys of the Israelites (33:1-49); apportionment of tribal land holdings, of Levitical cities and surrounding pasture land, and of cities of refuge (33:50 to chapter 35); the prohibition against the daughters of Zelophehad marrying outside their own tribe (ch. 36).

A Common Theme

The connection between the subjects in Mas’ei is perfectly clear:  the land of Israel.  The account of the Israelites journeys describes their progress towards their goal of coming to the land of Israel.  Immediately after this comes the order to apportion the land by lots, to take possession of it and to dwell in it.  Scripture describes in great detail the boundaries of the Promised Land that the people of Israel are supposed to acquire under the leadership of Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun, and the twelve tribal chieftains.   Then the reading moves on to discuss the layout of the land.  Cities are to be set aside for the Levites, certain areas are to be left empty for the public benefit, both to benefit the people’s spiritual life and to provide cities of refuge for the inadvertent manslayer but not to protect the willful murderer.  Lastly we have the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who held the land dear and who were requested to marry men from their own tribe in order to maintain the tribal inheritance of Joseph intact.

It therefore behooves us to take another look at our Parashah and re-examine its inner connections. Doing so, we discover that there actually is a unifying theme.   In one of his lectures on the weekly parashah, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Hat Har Etzion asked:  who were “the heads of the tribes” mentioned in the first verse ( rashei ha-matot) and why were they mentioned there?  According to Rashi, they were the tribal chieftains or Nesi’im; Nahmanides takes the same view as Rashi.   Since the gemara in Nedarim 78a (cited both by Rashi and Nahmanides) deduces from this text that vows may be annulled in the presence of a single expert, they must have interpreted the reference here to “heads of the tribes” as meaning the Sanhedrin and great Torah scholars, not political leaders.

A New Shulhan Arukh

Contrary to Rashbam’s interpretation that the passage at the opening of Matot refers to vows concerning offerings for the altar and is a continuation of the holiday offerings mentioned at the end of Parashat Phinehas, Rabbi Lichtenstein concluded that there is support for the approach taken by Rashi and Nahmanides, that the vows and oaths which are referred to in this week’s reading belong to the realm of the voluntary, not the obligatory.   When a person swears by oath or makes a vow ( neder) to prohibit upon himself something which is permissible, he writes himself a personal Shulhan Arukh alongside the existing Code of Law, undertaking additional proscriptions or demands. 

Apparently the assistance of the heads of the tribes is most essential in this regard.  The boundaries and requirements in all that concerns the existing Shulhan Arukh are clear, and the function of the Torah scholars in this regard is clear, as well:  to elucidate the requirements.  Whenever doubt arises as to how a command should be understood, they must deliberate and consider the intention of the verse and determine how one should behave in practice.   They may also add regulations of their own in order to remove stumbling blocks from the path of the public or to steer the public in a certain direction. 

Voluntary Proscriptions

This is not the case in the realm of voluntary undertakings.  In this realm there are no well-defined rules, and anyone may add strictures as they see fit.   Precisely in such matters it is important to consult an authority who can determine whether it is advisable to make a vow, and what vow should be made.

The basis for taking vows turns out to be human desires, as Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Nedarim (13.23):

A person who has taken vows in order to correct his outlook and improve his ways is praiseworthy for his initiative.   How may this be illustrated?   For example, a person who used to be a gourmand and took a vow not to eat meat for a year or two, or a person who used to drink to excess who forbade himself wine for an extended time, or foreswore drunkenness forever.  Also a person who used to seek bribes and was swayed by riches now went and forbade himself to accept gifts or receive benefits, and likewise a person who used to pride himself on his good looks and took a vow to be a nazir, and other such vows – all of these are directed towards worshipping the Lord.  It is with respect to the like of such vows that the Sages said “vows are a fence around asceticism.”

In this spirit one could say that every individual should be judge of himself in order to overcome his cravings; thereby one can see the thread that ties together the subjects in Parashat Matot – those basic cravings against which a person must struggle.   After all, the Lord’s revenge against Midian was a response to the Israelites’ lust for the women of Midian and Moab.  Returning from battle, the soldiers failed when they kept alive the women who caused them to stray, as Rashi noted (Num. 31:15):  Yet they are the very ones – this is to tell us that they recognized them, [saying], ‘This is the woman through whom so-and-so fell into sin.’”

Next the Israelites fell into sin because of their greed to use the Midianites’ possessions immediately— since according to the Torah any kitchen article that was not used in the past day is deemed fit for use-- therefore instructions had to be given to make their house-wares kosher. [1]   This also enables us to understand the levy to the Lord and the half of the booty and the offering given to the Lord from the jewelry of the Midianites.   The Lord wished to teach them that not all the booty belongs to them and that a fraction had to be given to the Lord and a fraction to the rest of the people.  This was a lesson to the army commanders, leading them to understand that atonement had to be made for lusting after Moab, as Rashi noted (verse 50):  “to atone for the thoughts their hearts had entertained for the daughters of Midian,” and therefore they dedicated the Midianites’ jewelry to the Lord.

In Pursuit of Wealth

In spite of all this, at the end of the week’s reading we come across another example of lust, this time the pursuit of wealth.   The Reubenites and Gadites preferred the Transjordan to the Promised Land.  We learn about the difference between the two banks of the Jordan River from Joshua (22:19):   “If it is because the land of your holding is unclean, cross over into the land of the Lord’s own holding, where the Tabernacle of the Lord abides, and acquire holdings among us.   But do not rebel against the Lord … by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our G-d.” [2]

Their lust for money caused them to lose even the most basic values, caring more for their livestock than for their families.   Only after agreeing to participate in the burden of conquering the land and after showing Moses that they had corrected their sense of values, did Moses comply with their request (Num. 32:24-27):  “‘Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.’   The Gadites and Reubenites answered Moses, ‘Your servants will do as my lord commands.  Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead; while our servants, all those recruited for war, cross over, at the instance of the Lord, to engage in battle – as my lord orders.’”

So we see that Parashat Matot deals with human cravings, the ways to overcome them, and educating to proper values, [3] and Parashat Mas’ei focuses on the land of Israel as the promised, chosen land.


Perhaps one could say by way of homiletical interpretation that there is a connection between the two readings.   Overall, Parashat Mas’ei provides the antidote to the problems that arise in Parashat Matot.  As opposed to the preference for the Transjordan, which is defined as an unclean land, Parashat Mas’ei presents the proper value:  preferring the chosen land, where the Divine Presence abides.  For the very purpose of the exodus from Egypt was to reach the land of Israel, “in which I Myself abide” (Num. 35:34).

In contrast to being seduced by the daughters of Moab and Midian, one should prefer family values.   Scripture praises the daughters of Zelophehad for marrying within their tribe, and praises marriage in general:  “He who finds a wife has found happiness and has won the favor of the Lord” (Prov. 18:22; see Rashi’s second interpretation of this).

Regarding craving in general, be it after food and wine, or after kitchen-ware taken from the enemy (the two desires are related), or for riches obtained through plunder and booty – in Parashat Mas’ei the Torah teaches us that there are limitations and guidelines:   regarding journeys, the number to be taken on any day or year; regarding levitical cities, what part of them is set aside for private use and what part for public use; there are boundaries to the cities of refuge beyond which the fugitive may not go without allowing his blood to be shed by the avenger.

In sum, the Torah emphasizes that the way to self-restraint, to coping with the cravings of the individual, the family, and the community, is through the laws of the Torah.


[1] See Torah Temimah, notes on Numbers 31:31. This means that the Israelites could not even contain themselves for twenty-four hours in their desire to use these vessels immediately.  

[2] See Rashi, loc. sit.:  If it is because the land of your holding is unclean – since the Holy One, blessed be He, did not choose to make His Presence abide there.”

[3] Also see Sefat Emet on Numbers, Parashat Matot, 1846, s.v. be-inyan milhemet Midian.