Hebrew Insights into Parashot* Ma’tot/ Bamidbar (Numbers) 30 – 32
In the opening verse (30:1) of our Parasha, 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 it was used metaphorically 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 directed at Moshe to “execute vengeance… against the Midianites, afterward you [Moshe] 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. In this way, 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).
1 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson.
Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.