Archive for Matot/Masei

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,

RNJL

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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,

RNJL

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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,

RNJL

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:

http://www.masorti.org/whatsnew/index.html

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:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/masei_index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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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)

OVERVIEW

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.)

IN FOCUS

“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)

PSHAT

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.

DRASH

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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Matot/Masei 5760

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 5760 and can be found in its archives.

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

OVERVIEW

Two parshiot are read together this week. In Matot, laws pertaining to vows and oaths start off the portion, which 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, Ruven 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 parasha of the book of Numbers, Masei (ch. 33:1 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, with 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.)

IN FOCUS

“Then the LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, designate some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee.They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly.’ ” (Numbers 35:9-12)

PSHAT

The subject of chapter 35 is the ir miklat, or city of refuge, to which people accused of killing could flee; they could not be harmed by the family members of the victim once they had reached these cities. If they were found to be guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder, they were then punished accordingly; if it was some kind of accident or crime of heated emotion, the slayer was assured of protection as long as he stayed in the city of refuge. These cities were part of the system of cities set up for the Levites, who as a tribe did not receive any regular portion of the Land, because of their role as ritual assistants to the priests.

DRASH

Rabbi Meier Levi, a chaplain and psychologist, writes movingly about the tremendous, paralysing guilt that can torment someone who may have some responsibility in another’s death. The doctor who made a mistake, the careless driver, the person who didn’t take the warning signs of suicide or depression seriously enough, the family member who has to make a terrible decision to end life support- in such a situation, one can easily imagine feeling that one’s life is utterly destroyed, that one deserves to be rejected by both people and God. R. Levi then draws a parallel between the designation of a city of refuge with the building of God’s Sanctuary in the centre of the people:

    The most significant aspect of a City of Refuge was that it was, in every meaning of the word, a sanctuary. A sanctuary is, of course, a place of protection. But a sanctuary is also a temple to God- designed and built according to God’s instructions and cared for by priests.

    [Earlier], we discussed God’s instructions to Moshe to build a symbol of His presence among the Israelites: “And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) We learned that the sanctuary was not meant as a house for God. God had not said “And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in it” but “And build Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” Here, at the very end of the Book of Numbers, we are again reminded what a sanctuary is.

    A sanctuary- be it a temple of marble and gold or a City of Refuge to which criminals flee- is a powerful, concrete symbol of God’s constant presence among people. God dwells with people, whoever they are, whatever they have done. His covenant with them is unshakable: His love is unconditional. No matter who you are and what you have done, God does not abandon you. God recognizes that people make mistakes. He always gives us another chance. And this is what the hapless offender- ridden with guilt and remorse- was to learn in the City of Refuge. (From Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve our Everyday Lives, p. 198-199.)

One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community. They might have come to the city of refuge in a panic, feeling utterly lost, and found there others in the same situation, people who could truly understand their feelings. These were Levite cities; perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped these “refugees” understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions.

Notice that the accidental criminal didn’t get off “scot-free;” he had to stay in the city of refuge until the current High Priest died, which could have been many years. Actions do have consequences, and reconcilation is not automatic; it proceeds on its own schedule, which can’t be predicted.

What makes the lesson of the cities of refuge so powerful is that accidental manslaughter is an extreme case- if someone who killed is not rejected by God, but can in fact still find empathy, safety, and the possibility of reconnection to the wider community, how much more does that apply to the everyday mistakes we all make! Nothing puts us beyond the reach of the Divine; there is no rift that can’t be at least partially healed, at least in theory.

How do we nurture such healing? By finding people who have “been there,” or at least who can listen without judgement; by letting go of old wounds (remember that the “blood-avenger” was no longer excused for his anger after a certain amount of time); by finding a place where we can be accepted with all of our imperfections, and by remembering that God understands that everybody makes mistakes, sometimes even terrible ones. The lesson of the ir miklat is that the process of healing takes time, space, community, and spirituality; with these elements, we can build Sanctuaries wherever we are.

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