Matot/Masei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)


Two parshiyot are read together this week. Matot begins with laws pertaining to vows and oaths, and then has a long report on Israel’s terrible battle with the nation Midian and its aftermath. After the problems pertaining to the war are finished, two tribes, Reuven and Gad, ask to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River; this annoys Moshe, but he agrees as long as they stay part of the united army.

In the final parsha of the book of Numbers, Masei (ch. 33 till the end), Israel stands just outside the Land, ready to start the settlement. First, all their travels and detours are reviewed; then laws pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of the Land are given. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are described, where special cities of refuge for accidental manslayers are to be set up. Finally, the book of Numbers ends with a review of prohibitions against intermarriage and an affirmation of the claim of the daughters of Zelophechad. (See parshat Pinchas.)


“These are the journeys of the Israelites, by which they came out from the land of Egypt by their armies, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. . . ” (Numbers 33:1)


All the different places where the Israelites camped on their 40 year trek through the wilderness are recalled and reviewed. However, trying to match up every place mentioned in this parsha with narratives in Exodus and earlier in Numbers would demonstrate some discrepancies. Biblical historians might attribute this to different traditions in the Torah itself, while classical commentators would cite midrash to reconcile different names and chronologies.


Readers of this column know that one of my favorite ways to interpret the Torah is through the lens of psychological insight. I often find in the stories of the Torah (and their commentaries) deep insight into the inner motivations and challenges of the individual Jewish soul. This week we have a wonderful example of how Torah commentary in previous periods has been addressed to the individual soul within a national community.

Looking at this long list of place names in the beginning of Parshat Masei, the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism itself, saw not a travelogue, but a symbolic description of the individual on a life-long spiritual journey:

    “These are the journeys of the Israelites. . . ” All of the travels added up to 42, and these are also [the journeys] of every individual from the day of her birth until she returns to Eternity. Understand this: that the day of birth is like the leaving of Egypt, as is known, and after that one goes from journey to journey until you reach the place of supreme life, as we have mentioned concerning the verse: “according to the word of God you will camp and according to the word of God you will travel.” ( cf. Numbers 9:15-23) This is like going from a restricted state [katnut] to a state of expanded consciousness [gadlut].

The key teaching in this commentary is in the last sentence, which involves two concepts from the corpus of inner-oriented Judaism. Katnut comes from the Hebrew root which means “small,” and refers to “constriction, a state of passivity and lack of inspiration, in which ultimate fulfillment exists only as potential, not in actuality.” Gadlut comes from the root meaning “large,” or “big”, and refers to the opposite state of being: “fulfillment. . arousal, inspiration.” (These definitions come from R. Norman Lamm’s invaluable study The Religious Thought of Hasidism.)

In this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov (also called the Besht, for short), those periods when the Israelites where stuck in one place- “encamped”- where like those periods in a person’s life when they are stuck emotional, uninspired, feeling uncreative and constricted. This is balanced by those times when a person is overflowing, feeling large, inspired, alive, spiritually vital- that state of being is compared to the Israelites travelling towards the Promised land, led on by the Divine Presence.

To me, this is a realistic view of the religious life: it’s not all sweetness and joy, nor is it endless, dour self-scrutiny. A religious life spent in sincere struggle to achieve holy purposes in this world will be a series of ups and downs, of inspiration and setback, periods of growth and periods of being stuck. There is katnut, and there is gadlut; the first brings humility, and the second can bring exhaltation. Both are necessary stops along the way, along the journey from birth to Eternity.

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