Parashat Matot – Human Initiative and the Divine Will

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת

 

Parashat Matot contains the story of Bnei Yisrael’s war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8), which finishes the story of Pinhas and the sin of Bnei Yisrael at Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25). Chapters 26-30 are an interjection, interrupting the story of Bnei Yisrael’s encounter with Midyan. While some of the sections in these chapters might be chronologically in order (see 26:1, for example), other law sections could have gone anywhere, and thus their placement in the midst of the Midyan narratives strange. However, a close analysis of the parshiyot of chapters 26-30 demonstrates that the whole unit, starting from Bamidbar 25 and stretching through chapter 30, explicates and demonstrates different aspects of the tension between the Divine Will and Human Initiative.[1]

This unit breaks down into (A) Pinhas, (B) the Census and the Daughters of Tselophehad, (C) Moshe being told to go up on the Mountain and Yehoshua’s Appointment, and (D) The Laws of the Festival Sacrifices and the Laws of Personal Vows. While Pinhas’ Narrative stands alone, the rest of the sections are pairs, half of each emphasizing the Divine Will and half emphasizing Human Initiative. Together, they create what seems to a very full picture of the different aspects of the tension between Divine Will and Human Initiative, one which is built upon in the following narratives of the Spoils of War (Bamidbar 31:9-54) and the Request of Reuven and Gad (Bamidbar 32).

In the story of Pinhas, Bnei Yisrael had sinned, and were suffering from a plague in consequence (25:1-3). Then ‘א said to Moshe, “Take the leaders of the people and execute them before ‘א, that ‘א’s wrath may be turned back from upon the nation” (25:4). Moshe then instructs the judges of Israel to take the sinners that are under their jurisdiction and to kill them. This is a valid reading of ‘א’s command, based on interpreting “them” to mean the sinners, and that “take the leaders” means that Moshe should act with them. It is not the intuitive reading, which would mean simply to kill the leaders themselves, but it is certainly valid, and we do not see that Moshe is punished or corrected for his interpretation. However, there is an implied critique on Moshe in the extensive praise and reward lavished on Pinhas, who did indeed fulfill the more intuitive reading of ‘א’s command, and turned ‘א’s wrath back from upon the people. Interestingly, we do not see that Pinhas heard the command to Moshe, or was a prophet in his own right, or anything of the like. Rather he seems to have decided on his own that this was the correct thing to do, and thus he was acting both in accordance with the Divine Will and his own, human, initiative.

The census of chapters 26 and 27 serves to detail all the families of all the tribes for the purpose of dividing the Land of Israel up evenly between them. In this census, only males inherit land and thus only male heirs of the tribes are delineated, with the exception of Serah Bat Asher (26:46) and the daughters of Tselophehad (26:33). The daughters of Tzelophehad are uniquely mentioned here in order to pave the way for their taking  of the stage at the beginning of Chapter 27, where they approach Moshe and ask to inherit the land of their father, in order that his name not disappear from his tribe[2], and after Moshe speaks to ‘א, they are granted this right. Thus the original Divine law, that only sons inherit, was changed by Human Initiative.[3]

The narrative of the Daughters of Tselophehad is followed by a brief command to Moshe that he go up on Mount Avarim to see the Land of Israel before he dies[4] (27:12-14), which is followed by his request from ‘א that He appoint a leader to take Moshe’s place. The careful reader will notice that ‘א makes no mention here of a replacement for Moshe, rather Moshe asks for it on his own[5] (27:15-17). This is a case where the Divine will accepting a completely Human Initiative and acting upon it, as opposed to the previous case where the Human Initiative simply led to a slight Modification in the divine plan.

The final section before the War with Midyan is not a narrative but two sets of Laws, intimately related. The first section of laws (Bamidbar 28 & 29) is the laws of public sacrifices, both the daily sacrifices and the additional sacrifices for festivals. This is followed by the laws for personal vows (Bamidbar 30). While at first glance these appear to be separate, they are connected by the institution of the vow-offerings. If a person vows to bring an offering, it would be brought at one of the festivals. Thus the laws of chapter 30 are really part and parcel of the laws of chapters 28 & 29[6]. Thus one might consider the whole section part of the Divine Will category. However, the laws of chapter 30 are all about voluntary vows a person might take upon themselves. Therefore this is in fact a case of where the Divine Will includes space for Human Initiative.

The War with Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-8) completes the Pinhas story (Bamidbar 25) disrupts the thematic tensions of Divine Will and Human Initiative with an absolute Divine command. It leads into a series of events involving the spoils of the war that build upon and contrast with the themes of Bamidbar 25-30.

Immediately after the war with Midyan, before the soldiers can even return to the camp, Moshe and the other leaders of Israel confront the returning army. They had failed to wipe out the women of Midyan who had caused Bnei Yisrael to sin in the first place (25:1-3), instead keeping them for themselves. The soldiers are reprimanded, and told to rectify their mistake. Here, while lacking an explicit and obvious Divine command, it is clear that the Human Initiative still went astray.

This story is followed by the divvying up of the spoils of the war to each member of the nation. Percentages were taken from all of the spoils for the Levi’im and for ‘א. This portion for ’א was taken and given to Elazar the Kohen Gadol. Then at the end of the section, the officers of the army come before Moshe and Elazar and say that because none of their soldiers died in the war, they want to give a tribute to ‘א from their finest spoils. They do so, and it is clear that this is considered somehow greater than the first percentage given to ‘א from the spoils, as that was simply given to Elazar, where this is “brought into the Tent of Meeting for a memorial for Bnei Yisrael before ‘א.” Thus in this case the Human Initiative does not stray, but rather builds on and succeeds the Divine Will.

The final case is that of the Request of Reuven and Gad to dwell on the far side of the Yarden River. This on first appearance seems to be incredibly problematic, as Moshe points out by comparing them to the Spies (Bamidbar 13-14). They are rejecting the Land of Israel, which ‘א has given them an inheritance, in favor of land that’s better pasture for their livestock. Not only that, but they outdo the spies by trying to separate from the rest of the nation by dwelling apart, thus damaging national unity. However, upon further questioning they reveal that their intent was not to reject the Land of Israel nor to harm national unity. Not only are they not trying to separate from the rest of the people, but they are willing to lead the charge into the Land of Israel, putting themselves in harm’s way for no gain of their own. They are not rejecting ‘א’s Land, they are asking to expand it, defining the Land of Israel as the Land in which Israel dwells[7]. Their Human Initiative is not rejecting the Divine will, but embracing it and surpassing it.

Man takes a position of great power and importance in the Torah. He is created in the Image of ‘א, the Creator of the World. Tehillim 8 sees man as “מעט מא׳לוהים”, “a little less than Divine.” And yet his first great act is to disobey the Divine Will, to push against ‘א. Man is powerful, but also fickle. This portrayed strongly as Bnei Yisrael make ready to enter the Land of Israel and live under their own control at the end of Sefer Bamidbar. Perhaps the strongest indication of this is the ambiguity of Reuven and Gad’s request. Based on their request, Moshe predicts Bnei Yisrael having to wait another 40 years in the desert. But this is a false perception, as the tribes intend not evil but great good. Man’s will can go either way, it can be lowly or it can be great. It can even intuit the Divine. It’s up to us what we do with it.

 

[1] Many of the Ideas in this composition come from this piece by Rav Yonatan Grossman of Michlelet Herzog and Bar-Ilan University: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/42matot-masei.htm.

[2] For a discussion of why this story is not a feminist one, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.60/41pinhas.htm.

 

[3] The tension here is aptly displayed by the midrash brought by Rashi on Baidbar 27:7. “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly: As the Targum [Onkelos] יָאוּת, rightly. [As if God said,] This is the way this passage is inscribed before Me on high (Sifrei Pinchas 18). It teaches us that their eye perceived what Moses’ eye did not. – [see Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 8]”. (translation from chabad.org).

[4] The exact nature of this command is complex, for an excellent and fascination discussion of the differing views and possibilities by Rav Elchanan Samet of Michlelet Herzog, see here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/41pinchas.htm.

[5] It’s entirely possible that without Moshe’s request there would not have been a replacement leader, part of a much larger discussion about the ideal form of leadership and government of Bnei Yisrael, which goes far beyond the scope of this composition.

[6] See the Rashbam’s comment on Bamidbar 30:2-3. There are also linguistic parallels between this section and it’s neighbors.

[7] This sets the stage for any further conquest Israel might perform from Yehoshua until the Exile.

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