Archive for Matot

Matot: Vows and Consequences

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion:Matot

Dear Friends:

Many of you know this, but for those who don’t, I’m beginning a transition from the congregational rabbinate to a new role as Director of Spiritual Care Services (e.g., chaplaincy) at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. I will be starting part-time at the hospital, directing a team of chaplains and interns, in August, and then join up full time after Sukkot. In the meantime I’ll do my best to offer some Torah commentary.

Despite the time crunch of two jobs and a busy family, the real challenge in writing a weekly commentary is finding teachings of hope and compassion in our tradition at a time when the world seems so cruel and dark. From kidnappings in Israel (of both Jew and Arab) to the war with Hamas to the apparently accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner in Ukraine, it’s hard to know the religious response to violence and conflict.

Yet as Ben Bag-Bag (yes, that’s really his name) said inPirkei Avot, referring to the Torah, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” This week’s Torah portion, Matot, has three primary topics: vows, in chapter 30; the war against the Midianites, in chapter 31; and preparations for the conquest of the Land, in chapter 32. (See link in second line above for translation of the parsha.) Let’s begin with vows and connect the first two themes of our portion.

Right at the beginning of our portion, Moshe is commanded to tell the people about keeping vows:

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is the thing Lord has commanded:  If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge . . . .

The rabbis notice the unusual phrasing “this is the thing,” [ze ha’davar] and offer an interpretation that “this is the thing” distinguishes how a sage annuls a a vow (another person’s vow, as a court procedure) from how a husband annuls a vow for a wife. (See Rashi on this versehere.) In other words, before we even get to the part which says that we must not break our vows, the rabbis inform us that there IS a way to be released from our vows! As my colleague Rabbi Gail Labovitzdemonstrates, the rabbis learn that the Torah permits the revocation of vows from a verse in which God repents of Divine anger against the people Israel, and if God needs to revoke vows, how much more the rest of us!

As Rabbi Labovitz points out, the rabbis have to find a way for people to annul their vows because people make rash, foolish, inappropriate and cruel vows. We act out of our anger, fear, hatred, anxiety or other emotions, and create situations with dire consequences. So the ancient sages created a safety valve in certain situations, to protect us from ourselves.

As I see it, among the vows which should be broken are vows of vengeance, and this is the subject of the next part of our Torah potion. At the beginning of chapter 31, God tells Moshe to “avenge the Israelites against the Midianites,” and let’s be clear, the verb used [nekamah]  means vengeance,  not justice, and the story that follows describes the wholesale slaughter of men and women alike. Apparently the desire for vengeance comes from the Midianites role in seducing Israelite men to idolatry (there’s some role for the Moabites there, too, but leave that aside for now.) inchapter 25.

Moshe is told to take vengeance for the Israelites, and then he will die. Regardless of what we believe about how a just God could possibly command bloody vengeance, it strikes me as a deep truth that vengeance leads to death for both parties. I’m not talking about a simplistic notion of a “cycle of violence,” though that may apply. Rather, Moshe will take vengeance, but it will not be a life-giving experience for him or the people Israel. Justice is focused, procedural, proportional, and grounded in personal or social values. Vengeance is an expression of rage, and brings with it collective punishment, indiscriminate violence, and the invitation to respond in kind. Vengeance cannot satisfy.

This is why the ancient rabbis allowed us to annul certain vows- because we make them rashly, and then feel compelled to follow through. In Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other areas of conflict and war, cries of vengeance go up after every terrible act, but this solves nothing. Would that those who call out for blood would annul their own vows and seek justice instead. Justice may require war, but its aims are wholly different than revenge. That’s a hard and subtle distinction, but one which needs to be shouted from the rooftops and brought to the politicians, for the sake of our very world.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Matot-Masei: Broken Cisterns, Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This week’s haftarah is a continuation, more or less, of last week’s;
we’re in the second of the “Three Weeks” before Tisha B’Av, the
mournful commemoration day, and the prophetic texts continue their
“rebuke” of the people. (See last week’s commentary, linked below, for
more context.)

This week, I just want to look at one beautiful verse from the haftarah:

“For My people have done a twofold wrong:
They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters,
And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,
Which cannot even hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

The contrast is stark: a “broken cistern” is compared to the “Fount”
(or spring) of “mayim hayyim,” or “living water.”

The Hebrew for “broken cisterns” is a bit ambiguous; Hirsch would
translate it as something like “empty pits,” but in either case the
contrast is clear: the Israelites who have strayed from the covenant
are like somebody who has only an empty pit where their water should
be, whereas had they stayed true to their God, they would be like
people who had a constant spring of living water, which in the most
basic sense means fresh or drinkable water, as opposed to brackish or
muddy water. However, pay close attention to the doubling of language:
“hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns,” implies not just that the
people lack spiritual refreshment, but that their work has been flawed
from the start- they made “broken cisterns,” that is, wasted time and
energy on a misleading path.

This, too me, is a resonant image, because it suggests that any
spiritual or moral path or system that is not a “fountain of living
waters”- that is, a constant source of the deepest renewal- is a
“broken cistern,” or a waste of time. A cistern that leaks is no good
to us, and a spiritual path that doesn’t help us grow is a leak in our
lives! Too often, we chase after a feel-good spirituality which is
like candy: it’s great in the moment, but has no lasting effect. A
real “makor,” or wellspring, is something that lasts a lifetime,
calling us back and never running out of the capacity to renew and
inspire. A deep practice of study, prayer and conscious compassion is
just such a spiritual wellspring, and lucky for us, you can find such
a practice wherever an authentic Judaism is taught with love and
brought into open hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Matot: Sacred Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot

I haven’t had much time for parsha prep this week- despite being only
steps away from one of the most glorious Jewish libraries in the
world- but yesterday I did hear a wonderful piece of Torah from Rabbi
David Ackerman, who does national outreach for JTS.

Rabbi Ackerman drew our attention one of the two mitzvot in this
week’s portion, having to do with vows:

“If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an
obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry
out all that has crossed his lips.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 30:3)

As R. Ackerman taught this, he pointed out how this verse deals with
imposing an obligation on yourself, that is, a vow to do something or
not do something not necessarily in reference to anybody else. In
other words, it’s obvious that we have to keep our promises to others,
but what if I make a promise to myself not to eat so much junk, or to
exercise more? (Not that those examples have anything to do with me,
of course.)

Rashi, basing himself on earlier texts and similar Hebrew roots,
compares the idea of “breaking one’s word” to treating our words as
ordinary and insignificant, and takes from this verse the idea that
when we speak, we should really take our words to be completely
meaningful and sacred. If we’re making commitments to ourselves, it’s
just as much a matter of sacred honor to fulfill it as it would be if
the vow was to somebody else.

Well, speaking as one who has promised many times to do many things I
think I ought to do in order to become the person I’d like to be, I
think Rashi’s point is well taken. Am I less than others to whom my
promises are given?

Something to ponder!

with that, we’ll wish you a very late Shabbat Shalom,


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Matot-Masei: The Journey Is Not Taken Alone

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

While I’m on vacation it
seems appropriate to bring to your attention that the second of this
week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Masei, is all about traveling and
journeys. Moshe recounts for the people all the places they made their
camp, from the days of Egypt to the borders of the Land of Israel. For
forty-nine verses of Bamidbar/Numbers 33, all Moshe does is recount
where they’ve been before, which leaves our friend Rashi with an
implied question: why do we need to read the “Triptik” (ah, the
pre-Mapquest days. . . ) again, since it’s all been recorded in
earlier chapters of the Torah?

Rashi gives two answers, the first of which is that Moshe recalled the
journeys in so that the people (including later generations,
presumably) would remember God’s kindness to the Israelites in
providing resting places along the long way towards the Holy Land.
Rashi does what I call “rabbi math” (i.e., don’t try this on your
1040) in order to show that the middle 38 years of the journey only
contained about half the number of total re-locations- i.e., most of
the moving from place to place was in the first and last years of the
40, so that there really wasn’t that much “journeying” as such over
the 40 years at all.

Rashi’s second explanation comes from an earlier sage, R. Tanchuma,
who offers a parable:

“It is like a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away
place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all
the stages of their journey, saying to him, ‘This is where we sat,
here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’ ” (Rashi on
Bamidbar/Numbers 33:1)

R. Tanchuma’s parable begs two questions: first, who do the characters
of the story represent in terms of the Torah narrative, and second,
why is it important for the son to know what happened along the way to
the place where he was healed? Isn’t it enough to know that everything
turned out OK in the end?

In many religious parables and allegories, the character of
the “King” represents God, and if that’s what R. Tanchuma meant, then
we have to understand that Moshe was following God’s instructions to
review all the stages of the journey. In that case, then it seems that
Rashi’s first answer and his second answer are the same: the review of
the stages of the journey is a praise of God’s kindness, both in
providing for resting places along the way and in staying with the
people in their times of trouble at various points.

However, perhaps another possibility is that the “King” in R.
Tanchuma’s parable is not God, but Moshe, and if so, that creates the
problem of understanding how Moshe brought the people- the “son”-
“back” home, since Moshe never came from the land of Israel. I have no
particular answer to that problem, but on the other hand, this reading
makes R. Tanchuma’s parable more poignant and human, casting the
relationship between Moshe and the people as one of parent and child.
Moshe comes across as more of a care-giver than a law-giver, more a
shepherd than a judge .Perhaps in recalling the stages of the journey,
he is really talking about his long relationship with the people,
saying: “here were all the places I took care of you as your leader
and friend.”

Now, perhaps it’s understandable that Moshe would like a little bit of
gratitude from the people, given that he knows that his days are soon
drawing to an end, but there is also something touching about the idea
that this long-serving leader would ask the people to remember all
they’ve been through together. In this reading, it feels to me that
these verses are about Moshe’s love and kindness for the people- which
perhaps is what he’d like them to remember about him, rather than the
times he was a strict judge and stern lawgiver.

Returning to Rashi, perhaps we can say that he offers two different
reasons for recounting each stage of the journey because the people
had multiple thanks to give, both to God and to Moshe. If so, then the
long passage at the beginning of chapter 33 is more than a log-book of
campsites, but is paradigmatic of all human journeys: we take them
with God, and we take them with our friends and loved ones. To God we
give thanks for the blessings and goodness along the way, and if we
are blessed enough to have companions and family who strengthen us, we
give thanks for the amazing gift that human hearts can be loyal and
loving. Remembering the stages of the journey, in this light, isn’t
about nostalgia, it’s about recognizing to Whom thanks are due, both
in the Heavens above and right here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mattot-Maasei: The Miracle is the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

Our thoughts and prayers are for peace this week- the world is crying
out for peace, but there is still so much needless war. . . . . .

Our Torah portion this week is Mattot-Masei, a double portion, which
concludes the book of Bamidbar/ Numbers. Among the stories and laws of
the double parsha are a recounting of all the places where the
Israelites camped from the time they left Egypt until arriving on the
far side of the Jordan river.

“These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt
in their legions, under the charge of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe
recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the
word of the Lord, and these were their journeys with their starting
points. . . . . ” (Numbers/Bamidbar 33:1-2)

What follows is a large chunk of text with the names of all those
places, which raises a question among commentators: so, nu, what is
this, a travelogue, that we need all the names of every campsite?
Kidding aside, it’s a serious question about the nature of sacred
text: the ancient and medieval rabbis took it as self-evident that the
Torah teaches theological truth, not merely historical data. So if the
Torah is telling us “first they camped here, then there, then over
there. . . . “, it must have a theological purpose in doing so.

One perspective comes from Maimonides (A.K.A. Rambam), the philosopher
who is quoted in the Torah commentary of the later scholar
Nachmanides, (A.K.A. Ramban.) Rambam explains that the Torah goes into
great length to tell us every place the Israelites camped because it’s
part of the larger narrative of God’s greatness and mercy. In fact,
even with all the miracles which the Torah describes, from the
splitting of the Sea to the giving of the Torah and all the rest, the
most amazing miracle of all is that the Israelite nation survived on
its 40 year journey, with the manna falling every day and the people
moving along from one point to the next for an entire generation.
Thus, for Rambam, the campsites are named because knowing the details
of the journey helps us be grateful to God for the entire miraculous
history of our people, which is more amazing than any particular piece
of it.

Of course, what’s true for a people is also true for a person: with
all the ups and downs and detours and travails and triumphs and
challenges and successes and failures and joys and sorrows that a life
can bring, the journey from one stage to another may be the greatest
gift of all. Just the fact that we don’t have to get stuck at one
“campsite” over a life’s journey is pretty amazing- we are always
capable of greater growth and getting closer to the unfolding of our
spiritual potential. Reflecting on the journey can bring us to
amazement and gratitude- precisely the emotions that miracles evoke,
if only we open our hearts to feel them.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- before you go onto further Torah study in the links below, take a
moment to read some of the letters from Masorti (Conservative) rabbis
in Israel, doing amazing work under great stress in the current
situation. To help the Masorti movement bring comfort, healing and
refuge to the people of Israel, please consider donating, through the
link at the top of the page:

Now, as usual, you can find a summary of the double portion and
further commentary in the first link, and the relevant Torah texts in
the second:

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Parsha in Advance: Matot (for week of July 30th)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot

Wonders upon wonders, I’m beating my own deadlines!

Here, as promised, is more parsha commentary in advance of its proper week- you
save this email for the week of July 30th, when we read parshat Matot. Matot is
read with the next parsha, Ma’asei, but this year they are read separately.
Matot begins
with laws regarding the annulment of vows within a family, shifts to the story
of a war
against the Midianites, and ends with Moshe negotiating with the tribes of Gad
and Ruven
over their desire to settle east of the Jordan river.

The middle part of parshat Matot, Bamidbar/Numbers 31, tells us that God
Moshe to gather an army to wage a war of vengeance against the Midianites. The
spared no man and took the women captive; Moshe later reminds the officers that
it was
the women who tempted the Israelites to sin (cf. chapter 25), so many of the
women were
also killed, executed in captivity.

This is an unpleasant and difficult story. It’s very hard to reconcile this
narrative with the
Torah’s overarching ethic of compassion and justice, and in fact, I’m going to
suggest that
we not even try. Many commentators, from ancient days to more recent times, have
to soften the history of this war, by enumerating reasons why the Midianites
what they got, or perhaps by allegorizing the story so that it’s really not
about a military
campaign at all. Others suggest that such stories are merely reflective of the
Torah’s roots
in real history; thus placing narratives of brutal conflict in their own
historical context
helps us understand that we cannot apply contemporary sensibilities to a very

These are all valid approaches to dealing with this and other difficult pieces
of our
tradition, but I’d like to suggest another. Perhaps we should not soften,
contextualize, or
justify the hard texts, but confront them. Perhaps it’s part of our spiritual
work as a
people to look into even our most sacred stories and ask hard questions about
and justice. (Without, of course, prejudging the answers.)

Consider this from the perspective of personal spiritual growth, which
necessarily involves
introspection and a fearless moral inventory. Becoming a mature human being
recognizing those parts of ourselves which we’d prefer to hide away, including
aspects of the human psyche linked to anger, resentment, revenge, grudges,
habits, and harsh judgments. Spiritual growth means looking at things within
that we’d rather explain away or avoid altogether, yet a basic premise of
Judaism is that a
loving God has given us the capability to transcend our inner fault lines, if we
will only
seek truth and forgiveness and continue our work of “cheshbon ha-nefesh, or

I think what’s true for an individual is also true for our people: buried deep
within our
sacred texts and traditions are occasional remnants of things we’d rather not
look at,
things like violence, sexism, and xenophobia. We will grow as a people (and
particular communities) by confronting such texts honestly and fearlessly, and
that even the Torah itself, because it is grounded in human history, reflects
human flaws
and failings. The promise of Judaism is not human perfection- that’s impossible.
promise of Judaism is that our faults are not our destiny- if we will seek
without equivocation.

with blessings of peace,


PS- here’s a different link for reading the Torah portion in translation- click
the top
underlined link for the translation on one page, and the underlined links for
the seven
sections for Hebrew and English:

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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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