Hebrew Insights into Parashot* Ma’tot/Masa’ey – Bamidbar (Numbers) 30 - 36
We have come to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers), and this time we will be looking at the two Parashot with which this book ends. In the opening verse (30:1), Moshe is seen addressing the “heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel.” The word used here for tribes is “ma’tot” (plural, while singular is “ma’teh”). In Parashat Chu’kat (Num. 19 – 22:1) we discovered that “ma’teh” is a rod or a staff (like the one Moshe used to hit the rock, Num. 20:8-11), and that this word is rooted in the verb to “stretch out” but also means to “incline, turn, or turn away.” Thus, by implication, “ma’teh” is used for “tribe,” emanating from the ‘rod of authority’ in the hand of the respective tribal leaders. (The other word for tribe, “shevet,” also means a “rod”.) In both of our Parashot, “mateh” is used solely for “tribe” or “tribes” (e.g. 31:4; 32:28). In Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:26 we encountered another “staff,” that is “ma’teh lechem” which is the “staff of bread.” There staff was used a metaphor for that which is leaned (or depended) upon, as indeed our bodies cannot do without bread (used there as a generic term for “food”).
The first part of Parashat Ma’tot deals with oaths and prohibitions, and the abolition thereof (see Matt. 18:18, 19). In 30:3-5 we read: “And when a woman vows a vow to YHVH, and has bound a bond in the house of her father in her youth, and her father has heard her vow… and her father has remained silent… then all her vows shall stand... But if her father has prohibited her in the day he heard, none of her vows and her bond with which she has bound her soul shall stand. And YHVH will forgive her because her father prohibited her.” “Prohibited,” in both instances in this passage is “heh’nee”, of the root n.o.h (noon, vav, alef), meaning “hinder, restrain, or frustrate.” Similarly, in verse 8: “If in the day her husband hears, he prohibits her…” (emphasis added), the same verb is used. The latter part of Parashat Ma’tot presents the story of the sons of Re’uven and Gad who express to Moshe their desire to settle in the land of Gil’ad, on the eastern shore of the Yarden (Jordan). However, Moshe, being concerned that they may be separating themselves from their brethren and that their move could have a negative impact on the rest of the people, voices his misgivings and says: “And why do you discourage the heart of the sons of Israel from passing over to the land which YHVH has given to them? So your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. And they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, and discouraged the hearts of the sons of Israel” (32:7-9). Here we find the verb n.o.h once again, but this time translated as “discourage or discouraged.” Moshe attributes the same motives that operated in the hearts of the ten spies (Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, Num. 12-14), to the two tribes wishing to settle on the Yarden’s eastern shore. He interprets their plan as being one that would frustrate YHVH’s will, while at the same time incurring frustration in his listeners, who are no doubt concerned lest their leader would frustrate their plans. Frustration and a feeling of being hindered must also be the lot of the woman, mentioned above, who takes a vow and/or restricts herself in some way for Godly reasons and in good conscious and is later prevented from going through with the commitments she had taken upon herself.
The origin of the verb n.o.h, is “rise with difficulty”  illustrating what we have noticed time and again, namely that Hebrew is a very concrete language and thus most of its abstract terms are actually borrowed from the tangible world. Several other such terms in this Parasha are “bind” (e.g. 30:3,4,5,6 ff), which is “assor” (a.s.r., alef, samech, resh) and literally means “imprison or imprisoned” (such as in Gen. 40:3; Jud. 15:11,13; 1Sam. 6:7 etc.). Another one is “annul or make void” – “ha’fer” (in 30:12), whose root is “porer” (p.r.r. pey, resh, resh) and means to “crumble, break, shatter or destroy” (although its common usage is the metaphorical one rather than the literal).
Returning to Moshe’s exhorting address in 32:14 to the two tribes; the aging leader expresses his concern lest their actions would give rise to a “brood of sinful men.” The word used there is “tarbut,” which is of the root “rav” meaning “much, many, or great,” and is therefore simply a derivation of “increase.” Thus, Moshe is literally talking about an increase or spread of evil among them, without pointing to an existing grouping or a particular “brood.” In verses 14b and 15 he adjoins: “[Lest] you still [will] add more to the burning anger of YHVH against Israel. For if you turn away from Him, He will add more to His abandoning of them [i.e. Yisrael] in the desert…” (literal translation). Moshe is worried that the actions of the Reuvenites and Gaddaites would bring about an increase of evil and in this manner add to YHVH’s anger, adding disciplining measures, resulting in more suffering for the people as a whole.
Another issue dealt with in our Parasha is the command to “execute vengeance… against the Midianites, afterward you shall be gathered to your people” (31:2). In the preparations leading to this eventuality, Moshe calls out for men to be “prepared for the army” (31:3). However,
“he-chal’tzu” (with root ch.l.tz, chet, lamed, tzadi), which is the command used here for “be prepared” actually means to “draw, pull out, or remove” (such as “removing” one’s foot out of a shoe, Deut. 25:10). Thus, the literal rendering of 31:3 is: “Draw out from amongst yourselves men for the army…” Rabbi Mordechai Eilon, quoting Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, stresses that although the expression “draw out from amongst yourselves” is in reference to a select group, it actually points to the ‘whole’ from which this group is to be drawn, implying the involvement of the entire group. Thus, by virtue of being represented by the “cha’luztim” (plural for “cha’lutz,” “those who plod ahead,” see also 32:20, 21), the whole army will be participating in the battle. Aside from meaning “drawn out,” the root ch.l.tz. also speaks of being removed from one’s customary environment and comfort zone, indicating that these vanguards were willing to venture and forge the way ahead of everyone else. The verb “cha’letz”’s additional meaning, which is “to rescue and deliver” (used a number of times in the Psalms), is totally compatible with the readiness of the two tribes to help their brethren.
In view of this, when the Re’uvenites and Gaddites declare later (in 32:17): “We shall ourselves go armed” (which reads, “va’necha’letz”, again of the root ch.l.tz), their intent appears much clearer. They are saying in fact that after they make basic provisions for their families and livestock, they will “remove” themselves from all that is familiar to them and will “hurry and go ahead of the sons of Israel until we bring them to the place which is theirs” (32:18, literal translation). In his response Moshe states that each of them is to be a “cha’lutz” for his brother, (while failing to do so, according to him, will be considered a sin “before YHVH” vv. 20-24). Their response is again marked by the term “cha’lutz” (v. 27). Moshe repeats this condition; namely, that only if they will act as “chalutzim” will they be entitled to land on the Yarden’s eastern shore. In their reply, the Gaddaites and Re’uvenites confirm their readiness to “go over… as chalutzim… before YHVH into the land of Canaan, so that the land of our inheritance on that side of Jordan may be ours” (v. 32).
Interestingly, the first time the root ch.l.tz shows up in Scripture is in Genesis 35:11, where the Almighty promises Abraham that “…A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come out of your loins.” “Loins” in that text is “chalatza’yim” - the strong place. In the context of our story, the descendants of the promised “kingly” race find themselves having to take the lives of their enemies’ kings, who no doubt were clad in royal robes, as one of the terms for such clothing is, “mach’la’tzot” (again of the root ch.l.tz). Yehoshua the High Priest was dressed in such robes in exchange for his filthy ones (ref. Zech. 3:4).
Chapters 33-36 constitute the next Parasha, which is Masa’ey. “These are the journeys of – “masa’ey” - the sons of Israel… (33:1, emphasis added), “and Moses wrote their departures according to their journeys by the mouth of YHVH. And these are their journeys, according to their departures” (v. 2). Although Moshe is entirely familiar with the journeys and the name of each location that the people of Yisrael had gone through, and/or encamped at, the account, which will now follow (vv. 3- 49) is dictated to him “by the mouth of YHVH.” Wondering as to the importance of these technical details, some of the sages, including Rashi, have concluded that this list was to serve as a reminder to the people of YHVH’s watchfulness over them, and of His attention to each and every detail pertaining to their lives and destiny. Thus, the names of each of the places is used as a device to invoke in them the memory of YHVH’s care for them. According to Maimonides, the names of the places are a testimony intended to verify that they have indeed stayed at the locations mentioned; places where only YHVH Himself could have sustained them, thusly bringing to their minds the miracles which He wrought for them. Sforno adds to this: “’The Lord blessed be He desired that the stages of the Israelites’ journeyings be written down to make known their merit in their going after Him in a wilderness, in a land that was not sown [ref. Jer. 2:2] so that they eventually deserved to enter the land. ‘And Moses wrote’ – he wrote down their destination and place of departure. For sometimes that place for which they were headed was evil and the place of departure good… Sometime the reverse happened. He wrote down too the details of their journeyings because it involved leaving for a new destination without any previous notice, which was very trying. Despite all this, they kept to the schedule…’ In other words, according to Sforno the Torah shows us both sides of the coin. We have been shown an Yisrael “composed of rebels and grumblers, having degenerated from the lofty spiritual plane of their religious experience at Mount Sinai… Now the Torah changes its note and shows us the other side of the picture, Israel loyal to their trust, following their God through the wilderness… They followed Him in spite of all the odds, through the wildernesses of Sinai, Etham, Paran and Zin… that was also a place of fiery serpents and scorpions and drought where there was no water, where our continued existence would have been impossible, were it not for the grace of God…”
Chapter 34 details the extent of the territory of the inheritance. In an era when defined borders did not exist, this was a novelty which underscores, once again, the importance YHVH attaches to the land and to its occupation. It is here that He also appoints those “who will take possession of the land for you” (34:17). Following these instructions, the towns which are to be occupied by the Levites (among the other tribes’ territories), are listed. “Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites cities to live in, from the land of their possessions, and you shall give to the Levites open land for the cities” (35:2). “Open land” is “migrash.” One of the words for “inheritance” is “yerusha” (33:52, 53), in which is embedded the term to “impoverish” (being a reference to the party from whom one’s inheritance is wrested). “Migrash,” which the Levites were to be granted, is of the root g.r.sh (gimmel, resh, shin) and its primary meaning is to “cast or drive out.” Hebrew certainly does not conceal or embellish the hard-core ‘facts of life’, and does not make attempts at being politically correct. As a matter of fact, from Matthew 11:12 we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven is also “seized by force.” Thus, in taking hold of YHVH’s possession (and their inheritance), the Israelites had to “impoverish” and “cast out” the inhabitants of the land. When “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking, she said to Abraham, ‘Drive away [“ga’resh”] this slave-girl and her son, for the son of this slave-girl shall not inherit [“yirash” – will cause another to be impoverished] with my son, with Isaac’” (Gen. 21:9,10).
The next topic is that of the refuge cities and their respective guidelines, one of which states that if a person has slain someone unintentionally he is to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, and only then return to the “land of his possession [inheritance]” (35: 25, 28). Similarly, it is only through the death of our High Priest that we too have been released, and may now come out of our proverbial confinement into the freedom of our inheritance (ref. Acts 20:32; 26:18; Eph. 1:11; Col. 3:24; Heb. 9:15). This fact gains even more validity when we read the last part of the chapter: “And you shall take no ransom [kofer, of the root k.f/p.r – kippur] for the life of a murderer; he is punishable for death, for dying he shall die. And you shall take no ransom [kofer] for him to flee to the city of his refuge, to return to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood pollutes the land. And no ransom [kofer] is to be taken for the land for blood which is shed in it, except for the blood of him who sheds it; and you shall not defile the land in which you are living. I dwell in its midst, for I, YHVH, am dwelling among the sons of Israel” (35:31-34). Thus, the blood of Yeshua our High Priest has purified both our earthly inheritance and ourselves, and at the same time has also gained for us a heavenly one (ref. 1Pet. 1:4). According to the English translation, the cities of refuge are to be “selected.” The Hebrew, on the other hand, reads: “You shall cause cities to occur (for yourselves)… “ve’hik’re’tem” – root k.r.h (kof, resh, hey) (35:11), an expression which is an oxymoron, as one’s will is either actively involved, or else things occur in a happenstance manner, or (more likely) by Providence beyond one’s control. Once again the Hebraic mentality presents a challenge, pointing to the place where Providence and man’s choice meet, even at the expense of defying human logic.
YHVH’s detailed attention to the place He has set apart is seen again in the last chapter of Parashat Masa’ey, where we learn that “no inheritance of the sons of Israel shall turn from tribe to tribe, for each one of the sons of Israel shall cling to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And any daughter that possesses an inheritance from any tribe of the sons of Israel to one of the family of the tribe of her father is to become a wife of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel may each possess the inheritance of his father. And the inheritance shall not turn from one tribe to another tribe. For the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each one cling to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded Moses” (36:7-10 emphasis added). The word for “turn” here, in future tense, is “tisov” of the root s.v.v (samech, vet, vet). “Savov” is to “turn about or go around.” It is indicative of mobility, unstableness and temporariness. The usage of this verb here lends extra emphasis to the issue at hand: “For the tribes of Israel shall each cling – yid’b’ku, adhere, cleave like glue - to its own inheritance, as YHVH commanded…” In B’resheet 3:24 we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and will cleave/adhere/cling to his wife and they will become one flesh.” YHVH declares above that He dwells in the midst of the land, among the sons of Yisrael (35:34); it is no wonder therefore that He is so very particular about the set up of His abode.
* “Parashot” plural for “Parasha” (whereas “Parashat” is “Parasha of…”, hence “Parashat
Matot” or “Parashat Masa’ey”)
1 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson.
Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.
2 New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library,
Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Hemed Books Inc.,