Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Masai

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Unity of Word and Deed

By Michael Chessen

     This Torah reading, "Massai" closes the book of Numbers. The first of these readings marks the end of a process which has occurred throughout Numbers whereby mis-guided actions or even expressed considerations(as in our current reading), through various spiritual tests, have lead to God and His servant Moses needing to call for some form of "tikkun", a line of action both corrective as well as educational.

     The portion of Mattot opens with a discussion of vows. Vows, with all of their weighty future ramifications, occupy such central importance in Judaism that the opening service, "Kol Nedre", of our most holy day of the year, Yom Kippur, is named for its purpose of annulling any vows which we might have made but failed to carry out over the course of the preceding year. In our current Torah reading, the term for breaking a vow could be translated as "to profane" one's word.

     Words, of course carry ramifications not only for relations between man and God, but between man and man as well. Accordingly, the weight given to the discussion of vows at the beginning of Mattot finds later expression in the somewhat startling reprimand which Moses directs towards the tribes of Reuvan and Gad near the end of our first reading.

     The two tribes, which were slated for an "east-bank" inheritance, realized that they could actually remain on their side of the Jordan and thereby refrain from going to war together with the rest of the Jewish people. The severity of Moses' reprimand of the tribes of Reuvan and Gad, in which he accuses them of seeking to emulate the now deceased "spies" in working to sap the morale from the Jewish people, turns erstwhile rear-guard soldiers into eager "paratroopers".

     Moses is not satisfied with a mere commitment, however, rather he stipulates what has come to be known in Talmudic discourse as the famous "double condition of the sons of Reuvan and Gad". If you carry out your expressed commitment you reap the benefits, but if you fail to adhere to your word, you incur a penalty.

     In closing the narrative developments in the book of Numbers with this incident, the Torah is leaving us with a most compelling message. Not only do words carry the weight of deeds, but both of these need necessarily be "kosher" not only of form and appearance, but fully of spirit as well.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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