Torah from Around the World #281

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Parshat Matot-Massei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild is Rabbi of

‘Or Chadasch’ Liberal congregation

, Vienna, Austria.

Although this double-sidra includes many fascinating topics – cities of refuge, female inheritance rights and more – my eye was drawn to a less dramatic verse: Numbers 34:16f.: ”And God spoke to Moses: These are the names of the men who will take possession of the land for you: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun; and you shall take one leader from every tribe…”

What is so intriguing? Firstly, that the religious and the lay leaders shall lead together, above any of the representatives of the individual tribes (Caleb will represent the tribe of Judah); secondly, that the priest is named first!

Directly at stake is the fair apportionment of the Promised Land amongst those to whom it has been promised –  and as it often happens, the devil will be in the detail. In Chapter 32, two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad, had asked for the right to ‘opt out’ and effectively forfeit their share of land west of the Jordan, After some initially-negative reaction Moses agrees and allocates this area to them as well as to the half-tribe of Manasseh (32:33) – on condition that they do not simultaneously opt out of the joint conflict for the land West of the Jordan; and in 32:28 Moses has delegated his authority to Eleazar and Joshua to ensure that they keep their promise.

Chapter 33 first gives an overview of the Israelites’ travel log and then – in verses 50-56 – a very brutal divine command to eliminate the existing inhabitants. In view of current events in the same region, this is entirely believable. Having clarified the fates of the existing population, God turns briskly to definitions of the future borders of the land that will now have to be divided between – how many tribes? Twelve? Or Eleven plus One? Or Ten plus One plus Two Halves?

Here is another issue, for in chapter 35:1-8 it transpires that the tribe of Levi is also to have a special status, scattered and sub-divided all over the country in forty-eight cities (including six which have Refuge functions as defined in verses 9-34) but with no specific coherent region of its own. And in chapter 36 the leaders of Gilad, a sub-tribe of Manasseh, raise a specific issue – if the daughters of Zelophehad are indeed allowed to inherit their father’s allocation of land, as had been agreed in chapter 27, then they need  to ensure that it nevertheless stays within their own tribe. This is agreed (without, of course, consulting the strong-willed women concerned themselves). With this matter settled, in 36:13 the list of instructions and laws that God issued through Moses

‘b’arvot Moab, al Yarden, Yericho’

is completed. They have moved on from the beginning of the book, when they were simply ‘

Bemidbar Sinai

‘ – in the wilderness – and now we are in a situation where there are place names, river names and city names. His task largely completed, Moses can at last look forward to his own demise and the next book begins on the 1st day of the 11th month of the fortieth year since the Exodus – and ironically, still

‘bamidbar, b’arava


Property – land – is always an important issue. Who is allocated to which parts, who can inherit what, and how to ensure (not only through the Jubilee system) that the land allocations do not become fragmented over time? Who is entitled to decide what land belongs to whom? – albeit it stays God’s freehold property, a form of lease or sub-let is allocated to the Israelites, conditional on their good behaviour and obedience. And we see here – as so often before – that the lay leader and the religious leader have to work together on this matter, guided of course by the same divine authority.

Who is Eleazar? Following the horrific incident that took place forty years previously which also leaves his father traumatised (Leviticus 10 and 16), he moves from being the third of Aaron’s four sons  to becoming the senior of the two surviving sons who have to carry on where Nadav and Avihu had left off.. He has since been serving the God who took his two elder brothers; now his father Aaaron has died and he has assumed the title of Chief Priest. We know that  Eleazar is the father of Pinchas (cf. 25:07; 10) and in 26:1 it is Moses and his nephew Eleazar who are called upon to work together. In 31:21 it is Eleazar who gives technical instructions to the warriors on purifying the booty taken from the Midianites.

As modern progressive Jews we are not too happy, I believe, with the idea of religious leaders playing a role in Government! (As an Englishman I can just about cope with the idea of an Orthodox Chief Rabbi sharing the House of Lords with several Bishops…) The evidence and records of Shas and United Torah Judaism and other so-called ‘religious’ political parties in the various coalitions that have dominated Israeli politics have been a cause of anger, frustration and even despair. What is happening right now in the Knesset, with the increasing rise in the power of so-called ‘religious’ (or haredi) parties is a matter of grave concern. It is only possible because lay politicians, playing their own ideological power games, allowed it to happen. But what we see in this narrative is how religious and lay leaders should actually work together to lead the people and divide the property, because this is an holy mission and should lead to the culmination of a religious journey. Within communities, too, the dividing lines between lay and rabbinic authority are sometimes blurred, sometimes overlap…. Squabbles about boundaries of influence are the equivalent to border disputes over land. It is not enough to say ”Religious leaders should keep out of politics” and it is not enough to say ”Lay politicians should keep their distant from religion”. Instead one could say: God expects us to work together – for the good of all.

No-one ever said it would be easy. Moses, of all people, knew that…

Shabbat Shalom. Hazak, hazak veNithazek.

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