1. Perashat Matot: This and Thus

In the second of essay of last week’s perasha, Pinchas, we discussed the episode of the daughters of Zelophad in terms of a paradigm for proper leadership. The handling of their complaint and its subsequent settlement with a Divine agreement was used to illustrate two necessary aspects of an ideal system- one in which the potentially ‘unvoiced’ are given full participation in the legislative process, and the other being the need for transparency, where the process of decision making must be open to all, in order for the differing needs of a diverse populace to be heard and recognized, in the formation of a truly just society.

This message is continued in the Hassidic commentaries to this week’s perasha, Matot, in response to several textual problems, not as clearly related to the matter as the Daughters of Zelophad episode. This week’s perasha begins with an unusual text, using a phrase not found elsewhere in the Torah:

‘And Moshe spoke through Rashei Hamatot, the Tribal Chiefs to the people of Israel saying, This is the matter which God has commanded’

The matter at hand is the technical handling of sacred vows, particularly how and when they can be undone or revoked. The general explanation of why the tribal elders are involved in this set of commandments is generally felt to be a technical one, in that it is authority figures who often have the right to undo an inappropriate vow. However, already the Midrash reads other messages from this verse, which has the superfluous clause ‘this is the matter which Gd has commanded’. Why this clumsy passive voice, why not just state the laws?

The Midrash states that from this verse one learns a qualitative difference between the prophecy given to Moshe and that of all other prophets- that of Moshe is couched in terms of Zeh, ‘this’, whereas the others receive prophecy in terms of Koh, ‘thus’ (in other words, Moshe hears ‘this is what God says’, whereas all others hear ‘Thus says the Lord’). This is a widely cited teaching, but why would anyone care about ‘this’ versus ‘thus’?

The Noam Elimelech suggests that the distinction between ‘this’ and ‘thus’ relates to an important aspect of the relationships between leadership and the people. Generally, when leadership makes a proper decision, a reasonable response would be ‘that sounds like a good idea’, this corresponds to the level of Koh, a sort of “hear ye, hear ye”. There is a higher level, where a decision is clearly confirmed by precedent, one that is textually obvious, where one can demonstrate how the text (the Torah, in this case) supports it. This is the meaning of a Zeh statement, one can point to it, the goal and source can be “shown”.  In other words, the proper leadership takes steps that are transparently and visibly grounded in just practice (and, a primacy of text over presence).

The inclusion of the Rashei HaMatot, the tribal elders, in this specific commandment which deals with speech acts, is taken by the Noam Elimelech as reflective of another lesson about leadership. Leadership must not be acting in isolation. Any action taken by the leaders of the community needs to be in unison with the total community, and for the purpose of the benefit of the entire community. He brings a proof text to demonstrate that the real purpose, the real legitimacy of the leadership, or of the righteous, must be for the sake of the betterment of the entire people, even in seemingly mundane matters, such as economic improvement. Leadership is linked to the seemingly trivial laws regarding speech acts, so that the leader should not think that base material this-worldly matters such as ‘community organizing’ are in any way less important or less ‘holy’ than sacred or the theological issues.

Similarly, the Noam Megaddim, suggests that use of the term matot rather than the usual shevet for ‘tribe’ is to remind the leadership that the one quality that makes them eligible for public office is humility, that they feel they are lowly and not worthy on their own, from the Hebrew homonym Mata, which means ‘staff’ or ‘tribe’ but also can mean ‘below, underneath’. The real justification for leadership is not in being superior, but in being able to look out for the entire community, especially its weakest members.

It is for this reason, explains the Sefat Emet (in his comments of year 1882), that the description of the move on the part of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe for territory is presented in this perasha. In the future, after Joshua conquers the land, territory was to be allotted to each tribe by divine decree. However, these tribes, who were devoted to Moshe, preferred that they receive their territory in a visible legal decision, arbitrated by their beloved leader, in front of all the people, rather than via a divine fiat, which by definition is not one which can be validated by open discussion before the populace.

In other words, better a clear and open legal agreement than a mystical divine promise, as the latter can be more openly exploited and twisted.

2. Perashat Massei: Live Your Own Narrative

Perashat Massai begins by stating:

‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left the land of Egypt and Moshe listed their goings and comings, by the word of God, and these are their comings and goings’.

After this is a long list of where the people camped and where they moved on to, all beginning ‘…and they left place X, and encamped in place Y…

There are several textual peculiarities that are noted by the Midrashim and commentators-

  1. the first word, eleh ‘these’,  is not preceded by the usual ‘and’, meaning, by Midrashic convention, that this section is set off from the texts preceding it (as opposed to it being written ‘v’eleh’). .
  2. The odd word appearing later, motzaeihem ‘the place they left’’ provokes comments, as does its chiastic use in the verse, first mostzaeihem l’mas’eihem ‘where they came from and where they went’, later maseihem l’motza’eihem ‘where they went and where they came from’’.
  3. The dangling clause, al pi Hashem, ‘by the word of God’, is ambiguous- is it that the Israelites traveled by the word of God, or listing by Moshe of these stations that was commanded by God?
  4. The obvious question: Who cares what places were traveled past? Is there any purpose whatsoever to this list of transient camp sites the people passed through on their way from Egypt to the Land of Israel?

As is frequently the case, the Midrash offers several alternate possible purposes imparted by this itinerary review, so as we are discussing lists, here’s another list:

1. To commemorate God’s miracles which were performed at these places, so that the events that transpired at these locations would not be forgotten. This theme is picked up by the Ramban as well, but one would have to say this approach is at best problematic, as we have, indeed, forgotten what happened at most of these places.

2. The Midrash quoted by Rashi grants this passage a message related to healing and growth; on their way home, a father might point out to his now healed son all the stops along the way to the hospital where the son had crises- so too Moshe is instructed to record all the places where the people angered God. Thus, this approach is meant to recall the actions of the people as they matured, at these places, so the list serves as a growth chart.

3. The Midrash states that these places are recalled in order to, as it were, thank the places themselves for their hospitality in letting the Israelites camp on them.

These approaches are repeated by the medieval commentators, and appear in the Hasidic writings in a transformed manner. For example, the Mei Hashiloach, in Perashat Devarim, cites midrashic approach number 3, but ‘in reverse’. Rather than thanking the places, as in the Midrash, it is to exonerate the people by placing the blame for any problems upon the place itself, that is to say, if the people sinned in a certain place, it was the fault of an inhospitable environment, not the people. Their sins were the result of a bad “situation”, so to speak.

Still, the critical question remains, why does the contemporary reader need this list of place names?

The Baal Shem Tov is quoted by the Degel Mahane Ephraim as teaching that the 42 journeys enumerated here, which correspond to the 42 letter name of God, represent the development of spiritual stages along the way of each and every individual, and could be decoded if one only knew how to interpret the place names properly.

Following the Baal Shem Tov’s lead, other thinkers try to pinpoint exactly what it is at these places that correspond to our lives. The Degel Mahane Ephraim, and the Kedushat Levi, for example, both suggest that there were spiritual challenges faced and won by the Israelites at these sites, which explains the odd word ‘motza’eihem‘ as being derived from the term ‘nitzotzot‘, spiritual sparks or quanta, which were transformed and assimilated by the people at each of these places.

The Degel adds that these sites had to be enumerated by Moshe because the people themselves were unaware at the time that they had brought about this spiritual sublation, as is so frequently the case / However, Moshe, being in a superior spiritual situation, was aware of these spiritual victories, and therefore could detail them, and this information is what is being transmitted to the people, that in these places something of importance was accomplished.

The Arvei Nahal is bothered by this approach, however- he is bothered by what is now a standard sci-fi trope:  if these journeys and stations were necessary fulfillments of a 42 stage development of holiness, then how could this spiritual journey have been accomplished in God’s original plan, whereby the people go straight from Egypt to Israel? After all, we are taught that it was the sins of the people that led to this prolonged itinerary…

The Arvei Nahal answers that in different spiritual states different amounts of physical actualization are required. Had they not sinned, ‘all these journeys would have been rectified without needing any journeying at all’…

(I do suggest reading the actual answer of the Arvei Nahal in the original text; he sets this answer in the context of the difference between spiritual imagining of martyrdom vs. the actual act of  dying as a martyr, and presents a sensitive bit of consolation to victims of crisis,  claiming that those who give their lives ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, who are martyred as victims of spiritual persecution, do not suffer. Were that were true. In the last few weeks my sleep has been frequently disturbed in thinking of all the  children that were killed in the recent weeks, as well as a NY Times Book Review article regarding the SS death squads; there was a story cited of one Nazi soldier who marched on proudly carrying a still sighing one year old on his bayonet. I pray that the Arvei Nahal is correct).

To the Sefat Emet, it is the journey that is the message. This repeated clause, ‘comings and goings’, is to remind us that in every person’s life, every step towards something is also a step away from something (… you’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel; get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down, I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’…); in this textual instance the 42 journeys forward plus the 7 sites reached in retreat (see Rashi in Bamidbar 26:13) correspond to the 49 levels of impurity traversed by the people en route from Egypt (lowest rung) to Israel (highest rung).

Every step towards a goal is a step away from past failures, but how do we become conscious of this process in our own everyday life? After all, we see ourselves every moment of the day, it is hard to notice change in our weary busy lives… The Sefat Emet answers, it is in the review, in the act of each person looking back at their own life journey, it is looking at the big picture of where you’ve been, where you are going, and what you’ve learned from all those moments that effects the transformation and elevation of each of these episodes in retrospect into a spiritual journey.

To the Tiferet Shelomo, this kind of consciousness is not only about a big picture, but even from moment to moment, with every interaction, every time one speaks.  He sees the odd term motza’eihem as not being derived only from ‘nitzotzot‘, as we saw earlier, rather he sources it to the phrase ‘motza’ot hapeh’, literally translated as ‘speech outputs’ to teach that our utterances, our words, can travel farther than we know, have ramifications way beyond our intentions, sometimes the right word at the right time in the right place can be utterly transformative.

A theme of these reading on the ‘comings and goings’ of the human journey is that we are not always aware of the monumentality of seemingly trivial events in our life; sometimes an unplanned random episode or chance conversation might affect the whole world…

So let’s return to the first textual problem noted earlier.  The verse opens with the word eleh, ‘these are the journeys’ vs. v’eleh,And these are the journeys’. As we noted earlier, it is a midrashic principle that if there is no ‘and’ at the beginning, it signifies that this passage represents a break from what was transpiring previously, that something new is occurring, that a new story is about to happen.

This break from the previous text suggests that the listing of place names is in some way a novel event, a new episode. What new episode can we find in a seemingly formulaic recapitulation of places visited?

I submit that this listing of place names signals a transformative moment in the people’s consciousness, the crucial first recognition of shared history.  Previously they were a band of freed slaves who seemed to wander from one place to another, things simply happened as they do in nature.  The wandering freed slaves are about to enter the land, and become a free people, with their own independent story. The people will now have a History, a collective narrative. By virtue of this narrative, by recounting the places the people have journeyed and thus engraving into collective memory ‘places where things happened’, the wandering freed slaves become transformed into a People with an epic saga. By listing these places, Moshe has constructed the ‘narrative’ of the early history of the Jewish People. As Paul Ricoeur explains:

…the activity of narrating does not consist simply in adding episodes to one another; it also constructs meaningful totalities out of scattered events. This aspect of the art of narrating is reflected, on the side of following a story, in the attempt to ‘grasp together’ successive events. The art of narrating, as well as the corresponding art of following a story, therefore require that we are able to extract a configuration from a succession…

Thus, in the simple act of listing all the places where the people have been, which in other contexts may simply be the result of chance, Moshe has transformed a group of people into the People, with a story, a history, a narrative, with all that it implies in terms of a ‘living project’ for the future. The Netivot Shalom adds that even if we don’t understand how to decode the specific names listed here into corresponding moments of our personal spiritual bildungsroman, the mere encounter with this perasha, and the idea of a meaningful sequence in our lives, is in a sense already transformative of how we think of our own personal evolution.

Recognizing the transformative nature of the personal narrative, realizing that our life story is in fact a story, is already a step towards attributing meaning to our existence. A critical component of the Jewish concept of teshuva, ‘repentance’, involves a review of where the events of our lives have taken us, how we have responded, and how we might act differently faced with a similar challenge. It is worthwhile to recognize the centrality of the narrative function in our own self estimation; it is not in vain that the Rabbis, in discussing the acts of repentance and reconciliation used the metaphor of a ‘Book of Life’. Our lives are not unlike a text, a book, a book we ourselves author with a text made up of each and every life choice we make, a volume in which every individual is their own dramatist, “and what a long strange trip it’s been”…


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