Parashat Matot-Masei
July 10, 2021, 1 Av 5781
Torah: Numbers 30:2-36:13; Triennial 32:1-33:49
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parashah by Ilana Kurshan called "Diasporic Dispersal, Then and Now". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Happily ever after?" And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Choosing Brokenness" in the Haftarah.
Diasporic Dispersal, Then and Now 
Ilana Kurshan

The first of the two parshiyot we read this week, Matot, concludes with the request of two of the twelve tribes to remain on the near side of the Jordan River and settle in the vast cattle country of Gilad rather than making their home in the land of Israel along with the rest of the Israelites. Moshe, not surprisingly, is outraged by their request. After all, he has been leading the people for nearly four decades toward the land that God has promised, a land that he himself fervently wishes to enter but has recently been told that he may not. How could the members of these two tribes, Reuven and Gad, so brazenly spurn the covenantal promise? 

Ultimately, once he learns that these men will first support their fellow Israelites by fighting alongside them, Moshe relents, thereby allowing for the creation of a Jewish diaspora. But his initial outrage sends shockwaves through the generations, particularly in the Talmudic era, where the rabbis offer a range of vehement opinions regarding the importance of settling in the land of Israel and the role of diasporic dispersal -- offering us a way of thinking in our own day about how the Jewish people may stand united even when so many Jews make their homes on the other side of the Jordan, and beyond. 

Throughout the Talmud, and particularly in early rabbinic sources from the first two centuries of the common era, a plethora of rabbinic voices champion the value of living in the land of Israel. In the Tosefta (Avodah Zarah 4:3) the rabbis state unequivocally that “a person should always live in the land of Israel,” adding that it is preferable to live among gentiles in the land of Israel than to live among Jews anywhere else. Moreover, the rabbis insist that one should not only live in Israel, but also die there: “Whoever is buried in the land of Israel is as if he is buried under the altar.” In the Sifrei on Deuteronomy (80), an early midrashic composition dating back to the time of the Mishnah, we find a story of four rabbis who are traveling out of the land of Israel. At some point in their travels, they remember the land of Israel and are overcome by emotion: “They raised their eyes heavenward, letting their tears flow, and rent their garments.” The travelers then quote a verse from Deuteronomy in which Moshe enjoins the Israelites “When you have occupied it and are settled in it, take care to observe all the laws and rules” (Deuteronomy 11:31). Based on this verse’s juxtaposition of settling in the land and observing all the commandments, the source concludes with the assertion that living in the land of Israel is a mitzvah equivalent to all the other commandments in the Torah.

In later Talmudic sources, too, we find several stories about rabbis who were devoted to settling in Israel and passionate about the land. Rabbi Zeyra, a third-century rabbi who forsook his own rabbinic mentor in Babylonia so as to make his home in Israel, had a dramatic Aliyah story that reflects the extent of his commitment (Ketubot 112a). Unlike the members of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who preferred to settle outside the land of Israel, Rabbi Zeyra couldn’t wait to get there. The Talmud relates that he grew tired of waiting for a ferry to cross the Jordan, so he grasped onto a rope and crossed. Another man, who was watching from the sidelines, sneered at him for his impetuousness. But Rabbi Zeyra was not taking any chances, as he informed that onlooker: “The place that Moshe and Aaron did not merit to enter, who is to say that I will be worthy of entering?” He was determined to do all in his power to ensure that unlike Moshe and Aaron, he would merit to make his home in the land. 

And yet like the members of the two tribes who wished to stay back, not all the voices in the Talmud are so unequivocal in their support for living in Israel. Rav Yehuda, who was Rabbi Zeyra’s rabbinic mentor in Babylonia, argued that “Anyone who ascends from Babylonia to the land of Israel transgresses a positive mitzvah” (Ketubot 111a), arguing that Jews are supposed to wait until God tells them the time to return has come – an ideology that finds its echo in anti-Zionist Haredi groups of the past century. And in what may be read as a celebration of diasporic dispersal, the midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:3) compares Abraham to a vial of perfume that was sitting in a corner and not emitting any scent, until God told the patriarch to “move around in the world so that your name be great in My world.” In a related passage in tractate Pesachim (87a), Rabbi Elazar argues that God exiled the people of Israel not merely as a punishment, but so people around the world would be exposed to Jews and to their way of life and be inspired to convert. Rabbi Oshaya adds that God performed an act of charity in scattering the Jewish people among the nations, implying that had they all been living in one place, they could have all been destroyed in one fell genocidal swoop. 

In the Jewish world today the rift between the Jews of the land of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora seems only to grow wider. But as Moshe ultimately realizes in our parashah, the Israelites—like the Jews of later generations—can champion common causes even if not all living together in the same place. Our world needs both the Jews so passionate about living in Israel that they cannot wait even for the ferry to take them across the Jordan, and the Jews who prefer the vast holdings of the cattle country in Gilad and around the globe. May we learn to appreciate one another’s unique contributions and to find ways of standing together as a people even as we live apart.
Happily ever after?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb
Text: Bamidbar 36:1-6

1Then drew-near the heads… of the clan of the people of Gilead … son of Manasseh, from the clans of the children of Joseph, and spoke before Moshe and before the leaders... 2They said, “The LORD commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the people of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the LORD to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. 3But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry… 5And Moshe commanded … according to the word of the LORD, saying, “The tribe of the people of Joseph is right. 6This is what the LORD commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. 

  • This closing story of the book of Bamidbar is the next part of the story that we studied last week (27:1-8). Notice the linguistic similarities between the two stories, (if you can do it in Hebrew, you will gain an even better insight). How does the Torah use language to highlight closeness and conflict here? 

  • The daughters of Zelophehad focused in their request on the rights of the individual; they questioned why their father’s name should be withdrawn from his family. What is the focus of the heads of the tribe here? Their concerns seem to collide. How? Who should have priority? Why? Can you think of similar questions today? How do you suggest approaching such a conflict?

  • What is the problem that is facing the tribe of Menashe? What is the proposed solution? The Talmud tells us that the solution was merely “good advice” and the daughters were free to act as they saw right. What situations make this solution realistically difficult to apply?

  • The tribe of Menasheh received half of their land in trans-Jordan, in the Gilead area. That area is settled already in Moshe’s lifetime and that is where the daughters of Zelophehad receive their land. What significance might there be to these events taking place in the periphery of the land? 

  • Why do you think that the Torah chose to end the book of Bamidbar, the last book of stories of the people before Moshe’s concluding speech in the book of Devarim, with this story?
Choosing Brokenness
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

Chanting Tanakh is powerful. We speak the words of our ancestors, our prophets, our kings, our God as if they were our own words. Or rather, our own vocal cords give voice to the words spoken thousands of years ago. In those moments, standing before our modern congregations, we bring the past into a living present. To chant these words is an emotionally demanding experience. To become another means to try to understand another. It is not just our vocal cords we are lending to the creation of their voices, but our hearts are lent to the creation of the emotions of their lived experience.

The transformative power of Torah reading makes the choices in this week’s haftarah especially fraught. We are already in the middle of the Three Weeks, the mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av. There are three set haftarot for these three weeks, all emphasizing Israel’s wrongdoings and responsibility for the impending destruction. In a normal year, we would be reading the second of these haftarot, Jeremiah 2:4-3:4. But this is not a normal year.

This year, Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month of Av, falls on Shabbat, so the haftarah reading changes. We read the haftarah for any Rosh Chodesh, which is Isaiah 66. It is the final chapter of the book of Isaiah, written long after we have already come back into the land after the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile. It contains consolation and the restoration of Jerusalem, promising punishment and transformation for our enemies.
One of the more striking verses of this haftarah, as translated by Robert Alter, is:

“Rejoice with Jerusalem
and all who love her exult in her.
Be glad with her in gladness,
all who mourn for her,
that you suck and be sated
from her comforting breast,
that you drink deep and know pleasure.”

Yet in the haftarah we normally read during this time, from Jeremiah 3, Jeremiah is told to speak to Jerusalem saying, as translated by Robert Alter:

“And you, you have whored with many lovers,
and would you come back to Me?”

The spurned and wasted Jerusalem, portrayed as a whore in Jeremiah, becomes a loving mother-figure providing for her people in Isaiah. Is it possible to understand the Isaian image in light of the passage from Jeremiah? How do we read a prophecy of comfort in the spirit of a prophecy of rebuke? How can we understand the haftarah reading within the mood of the Three Weeks?

We look to our reader, our chanter of Torah. The words are written on the page, the cantillation marks are prescribed, but the voicing of the haftarah is up to the reader. This prophecy of comfort can be read as anything but comforting. Even as the words seem to promise us that all is well, the tone of the reader reminds us where and when we are. The haftarah becomes a reminder of all that we could have achieved, of the beautiful promise we have failed to uphold. The reader tells us who mourn to be sated from Jerusalem’s breast, with full knowledge that during this time, Jerusalem is dried up. As we are reminded in Lamentations 4, while even jackals suckle their young, Jerusalem is unable to feed her children.

On this Rosh Chodesh, we can choose to hold even comfort as pain, we can choose to see the brokenness in the world. However, remember that this is a choice. That this is our way of reading, just for now. We can embrace it and learn from it, knowing that in another few weeks our chanting will change, we will read for comfort.
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