05 Aug 2016

Matot-Mas’ei 5776: Recalculating

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“Some things are too important to be taken seriously.” Oscar Wilde

For forty years the Children of Israel wandered through the desert not knowing what the next day would bring. No itinerary was made available and no information was provided regarding the nature of their journeys. The only information given was G-d’s signal with which their travels were governed; their task was to watch for it and respond.

Thus it was regularly…as the cloud was lifted from the tent the Children of Israel would march on, and in the place that the cloud would rest, there the Children of Israel would encamp. (9:16)

This was a potent mode of training for a population of former slaves who had lived for at least the last two centuries in quite consistent, albeit dire, circumstances. They knew the work, they knew the punishments, they knew the limits of their lives. There were no real opportunities, possibilities or futures beyond the confines of the Egyptian bondage. The only truth they needed to know was their slavery and the taskmaster’s whip.

In stark contrast, freedom brings with it uncertainty. When we are free we are exposed to the waves of an ever-changing reality; learning how best to respond. Accepting the ability to respond to reality is synonymous with accepting responsibility for one’s own life and choices.

Included in all of this is the need to search for, and understand, truth as best we can and to be prepared to change our understandings of reality when the evidence presents itself.

Our journeys in the desert that were led by G-d were analogous to our own journey through life. We don’t always know where life is going to lead us and while we might believe that we are headed in a certain direction or that we will be staying in one location for a certain amount of time, we often find the course unexpectedly changing before us. When that happens, like our modern-day satellite navigation systems, we need to be able to respond and ‘recalculate’ our course in response to the new reality or circumstance.

Matot teaches us something essential about the manner in which we chart our course upon the journey. The parasha opens with the laws of making vows[1]. While we are commanded by Torah to follow through with our words even when they are restrictive, our oral tradition emphasises and indeed encourages us not only to avoid making vows that are negatively restrictive but also to actively seek an annulment of vows that were already made[2].

A vow, or a self-defined truth, can clash with reality and withhold a person from properly engaging in it. The more specific and tied to local thinking or circumstance that a vow is the more likely it is to hinder us in the future.

The Oral Law provides the ability to be released from self-imposed vows. This is because the more realistically we see the world, the more we discover our need to redraw our working definitions of its nature and our involvement with it. We are never meant to take our thoughts and words so seriously that they cannot be redrawn in the face of newly discovered realities. When a person seeks to annul a vow he is asked ‘had you known at the time of your vow what you know now would you have made it?’ If the answer is ‘no’ the vow is immediately annulled[3].

The world is constantly changing and to truly be part of it means being prepared to revise our understanding of it. When we are met with new information we can crusade against it clinging tightly to our personal truths as the world travels past us or we can revise our thinking in light of it and seek freedom from its confines and walk with G-d into the future.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] 30:1-3

[2] Nedarim, 22

[3] Mishne Torah, Shebuot, 6:5

Parasha Perspectives

IX  Matot 

X  Masei

IX  Matot

84                Laws of vows  (30:2-17)
85a              War against the Midianites:
1000 from each of twelve tribes, led by Pinchas.
Bilaam killed, spoil taken  (31:1-12)
85b              Moshe is angry about the spoil and instructs a
purification process  (31:13-20)
85c               Purification of the fighters  (31:21-24)
85d              Apportionment of the spoil  (31:25-54)
86a              The tribes of Reuven and Gad introduce their plea
86b              They request to settle where they are, but Moshe
responds very forcefully  (32:5-15)
86c               The two tribes compromise and agree to inherit
only after the People are safely settled  (32:16-19)
87                 Both sides confirm the details of the agreement and
Moshe gives them their inheritance  (32:20-42)

X  Masei

88a              List of journeys from Egypt to Hor haHar  (33:1-39)
88b              List of journeys from Hor haHar to plains of Moav
88c               Commands about settling Cana’an and
dispossessing its inhabitants  (33:50-56)
89                God identifies the southern, western, northern and
eastern borders of the Land  (34:1-15)
90                 A prince from each of ten tribes (not Reuven, Gad
or Levi) is chosen to divide the Land  (34:16-29)
91                 48 cities, with accompanying lands, to be assigned
for tribe of Levi’im, 6 of which are Refuge cities
92                 Description of the Cities of Refuge for those
convicted of unintentional manslaughter  (35:9-34)
93                 Laws of Heiresses based on Machla, Tirza, Chogla,
Milca and Noa   (36:1-13)
Responding Menashe tribes’ question, Zelafchad’s
daughter married within the tribe to preserve allotments.

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS