SALT: Parashat Matot-Masei 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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Motzaei Shabbat

            The haftara for the second Shabbat of the “Three Weeks” before Tisha B’Av is taken from the second chapter of Sefer Yirmiyahu, and in the middle of this prophecy, God condemns the nation’s leaders for their religious failings.  He laments, “tofesei ha-Torah lo yeda’uni” – “the bearers of the Law have not known Me” (2:8).  Targum Yonatan explains this to mean, “the teachers of Torah have not taught knowledge of fearing Me.”

            Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, in his Chokhma Va-da’at (130), cites this verse, and Targum Yonatan’s interpretation, in explaining the vital necessity of studying mussar alongside one’s regular Torah learning.  Targum Yonatan quite clearly speaks of a situation where scholars were teaching Torah but neglected to try to instill yir’at Shamayim within their students.  They taught the dry material, but failed to guide their charges towards sincere religious commitment.  God condemns these teachers for their failure, because teaching Torah without attempting to teach “knowledge of fearing Me” does not qualify as effective Torah education.

            We might add that in this same verse, God condemns the false prophets who delivered to the people alleged prophecies which they wanted to hear, prophesying in the name of the pagan god Ba’al.  The inclusion of both these groups of influential figures in the same condemnation might suggest a degree of resemblance.  God compares the Torah teachers who failed to teach yir’at Shamayim to false prophets, who misled the masses by delivering messages which they claimed to have been spoken by a divine being.  The “tofesei ha-Torah” who teach Torah but not general religious values and concepts are delivering a false message, just like the false prophets.  They implicitly teach their charges that God wants us to study but does not demand personal piety; that it suffices to amass knowledge without developing an awareness of God and subjugating oneself to His will.  The prophet’s scathing condemnation, according to Targum Yonatan, is directed not only to those who intentionally fabricate imaginary prophetic messages, but also to those who mislead through omission, by failing to emphasize the centrality of genuine yir’at Shamayim in Torah life.


            The Torah in Parashat Masei discusses the arei miklat – the cities of refuge which serve to protect accidental murderers from the victim’s vengeful relatives – and then discusses the gravity of murder in general.  In the conclusion of this section, the Torah warns, “You shall not defile the land…in the midst of which I reside” (35:34).

            The Sifrei, commenting on this verse, explains this to mean that “shedding blood defiles the land and removes the Shekhina; and it is because of murder that the Beit Ha-mikdash was destroyed.”  The Torah concludes its discussion of murder with this warning that allowing bloodshed to occur results in the land’s “defilement,” thus driving away the Shekhina.

            The Sifrei then proceeds to tell a story (which also appears in the Gemara, Yoma 23a) of two kohanim who were racing up the ramp to the altar, both vying for the privilege of performing the avoda (ritual service).  As they raced, one of them took a knife and stabbed the other to death. 

            At first glance, the Sifrei tells this story in this context to substantiate its claim that “it is because of murder that the Beit Ha-mikdash was destroyed.”  This story shows that the society at the time of the Mikdash was plagued by violence, which, the Sifrei tells us, was the reason for its destruction. 

            There may, however, be a different reason why the Sifrei found it appropriate to mention this story in this context.  The story continues that after the tragic murder, Rabbi Tzadok stood up in the Temple to decry the incident.  He noted the command of egla arufa, which requires in a situation of an unsolved murder that the city closest to the crime scene conduct a special ritual, including the killing of a young calf, to atone for the murder.  Rabbi Tzadok exclaimed, “Let us measure to determine for whom it is appropriate to bring a calf – for the city or for the courtyards [of the Temple]!”  He raised the hypothetical question of whether an egla arufa should be brought specifically by the kohanim in the Beit Ha-mikdash, or by the entire city of Jerusalem.  (This question is hypothetical because halakhically speaking, no egla arufa is required in such a case, where the murderer’s identity is known.)  The meaning of this remark, as Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg explains in his Yalkut Yehuda (Parashat Masei), is that the hallowed domain of the Beit Ha-mikdash can no longer be regarded as such.  Rabbi Tzadok was insinuating that because of the murder that had just taken place, the Temple had forfeited its stature as a distinctly sacred area separate and apart from the rest of the city.  It is now just a regular part of Jerusalem, and not a special site of sanctity.  Were an egula arufa to have been required, it would likely have been required by the entire city of Jerusalem, because, sadly, the Temple could no longer be seen as a special, distinct region.

            This story, then, confirms the Sifrei’s remark that “shedding blood defiles the land and removes the Shekhina.”  Rabbi Tzadok’s lament captures the notion that the divine presence and violence cannot coexist.  A Beit Ha-mikdash where murders take place is not a Beit Ha-mikdash.

            Of course, this is true not only of murder, but of all kinds of social ills.  We cannot claim to live “sacred” lives if we treat others with insensitivity.  If our “Temples” – our communities and institutions – are plagued by dishonesty, backstabbing, corruption, or hostility, then they cannot lay claim to any sort of special stature of holiness.  Kedusha can exist only if it is built upon a foundation of civility and ethical behavior.  Without such a foundation, the “Temple” collapses and is laid to ruin.


Parashat Matot begins with the prohibition of “lo yacheil devaro” – violating a vow.  The Gemara in Masekhet Chagiga (10a) comments on this verse, “Hu eino meichal aval acheirim mochalin lo” – although a person who takes a vow may not violate it, others are able to annul the vow for him.  This is thus the source of the concept of hatarat nedarim, which allows for the possibility of a vow being annulled by either a Beit Din or by “yachid mumcheh” (exceptional scholar).

The Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 228:16), based on the ruling of the Rambam (Hilkhot Shavuot 6:4), rules that a person seeking annulment from a scholar must personally come before him and tell him about his vow.  Although in general Halakha allows performing legal actions through an agent (“shaliach shel adam kemoto”), this principle does not apply in the case of hatarat nedarim.  The exception to this rule is a married woman, whose husband may seek hatarat nedarim on her behalf (Shulchan Arukh, Y.D. 234:56), due to the principle of “ishto ke-gufo” – a husband and wife are considered, in certain respects, as one legal entity (Rabbi Akiva Eiger to Y.D. 228:16). 

The Radbaz, in his commentary to the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, explains that hatarat nedarim requires a degree of “interrogation” on the part of the scholar or Beit Din granting the annulment.  They must ask the relevant questions to ascertain that the vow is eligible for annulment, and for this reason they require the presence of the person who actually took the vow.  Although fundamentally the institution of shelichut (“agency”) should be applicable, from a practical standpoint, the person who took the vow must be present to provide the relevant facts about the vow and the frame of mind with which it was taken.  (We should note, however, that according to this explanation, it is unclear why a husband should be allowed to seek annulment on behalf of his wife.  Nothwithstanding the halakhic principle of “ishto ke-gufo,” there is no reason to assume that a husband would know enough about his wife’s vow to represent her before the scholar or Beit Din.)

By the same token, as the Radbaz notes, it would not suffice to send a letter to a scholar or Beit Din asking for annulment.  Since a questioning process is required, the person must personally appear before the person or persons who will effect the annulment.

The Rivash, in one of his responsa (370), draws proof to this halakhic ruling from the well-known story told in the Midrash of Yiftach.  As we read in Sefer Shoftim (chapter 11), Yiftach led Benei Yisrael to battle against Amon, and before going out to war he pledged to offer as a sacrifice the first being that comes to greet him upon his return.  This turned out to be his beloved daughter, and Yiftach had no choice but to fulfill his vow.  The Midrash tells that Yiftach had the option of having the vow annulled by approaching Pinchas, the leading sage of the time, but he was unwilling to approach Pinchas, which he felt would infringe upon his honor.  Pinchas, for his part, should have initiated the process by approaching Yiftach, the Midrash writes, but Pinchas likewise felt it would be beneath him to go to Yiftach and offer to annul the vow.  Tragically, this insistence on personal honor resulted in the death of Yiftach’s daughter.

The Rivash notes that even if Yiftach’s ego did not allow him to travel to Pinchas and appear before him, he could have, seemingly, resolved this dilemma by sending a letter to Pinchas to ask for annulment.  This would have spared him the perceived embarrassment of appearing before Pinchas, while achieving his desired goal of saving his daughter’s life.  The fact that Yiftach did not pursue this option, the Rivash contends, would seem to prove that one cannot have his vow annulled without personally appearing before the scholar or Beit Din.


            Yesterday, we noted the ruling of the Rivash (370) that a person who made a vow and seeks to have it annulled must personally come before the Beit Din, and cannot send a letter requesting the annulment.  The Rivash drew proof to his position from the story told in the Midrash of Yiftach, who vowed to offer to God the first one who greeted him upon his return from battle, and this turned out to be his daughter.  The Midrash relates that Yiftach, in his arrogance, refused to approach the religious leader of the time, Pinchas, to seek the annulment of his vow, as he did not wish to show submission to somebody else’s authority.  The Rivash noted that Yiftach could have, seemingly, avoided this problem – and saved his daughter – by sending a written request to Pinchas, thereby securing the annulment he needed without humbly approaching him.  The fact that Yiftach did not seek annulment through writing suggests that this method of seeking annulment is invalid.

            The Chatam Sofer (Y.D. 220) refutes this proof, noting that conceivably, Yiftach may have regarded a written request as no less demeaning than personally approaching Pinchas.  It is entirely possible that just as he felt he would be compromising his stature by going to Pinchas, he would have belittled himself by sending a letter, as well.

            Rav Avraham Albert, in his Birkat Avraham (Matot), elaborates further on the Chatam Sofer’s argument, citing sources that view the entire concept of hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows) as predicated upon submission to the scholar or Beit Din’s authority.  The Beit Yisrael (Rav Yisrael Alter of Ger), citing his father (the Imrei Emet), explained that this is the reason why, as the Midrash relates, Pinchas refused to initiate the process by approaching Yiftach to offer the opportunity for annulment.  Since Yiftach arrogantly refused to submit to Pinchas’ authority, annulment was not possible.  A scholar or court can annul a person’s vow only by force of the authority that person invests in them, and thus if he refuses to acknowledge the court’s authority, and instead insists on his superior stature, he cannot achieve annulment. Pinchas therefore did not take the initiative to approach Pinchas, as annulment was not halakhically viable in light of Yiftach’s arrogant rejection of Pinchas’ authority.  This theory is also mentioned by the Chida, in his Devash Le-fi, citing Rav Yosef Shemuel of Cracow (author of Mesoret Ha-Shas).  If, indeed, the process of hatarat nedarim depends upon a person’s sense of submission to the authority of the scholar or Beit Din, then clearly a written request is no different from a request made in person.  Hence, as the Chatam Sofer noted, Yiftach’s refusal to send a written request to Pinchas does not prove that written requests are invalid for hatarat nedarim.

            Incidentally, several Midrashic sources strongly criticize Pinchas for his failure to approach Yiftach and initiate the process of hatarat nedarim.  The question thus arises, if Yiftach’s arrogance made hatarat nedarim halakhically inviable, then why is Pinchas faulted for not initiating this solution?

            The Beit Yisrael explained that as the religious leader, Pinchas was to have at least made an attempt to persuade Yiftach to accept his authority.  Although hatarat nedarim was not halakhically possible due to Yiftach’s mindset, Pinchas should have sought to influence Yiftach and change his mindset for the sake of saving his daughter.  The Chida similarly explains that Pinchas should have informed Yiftach that he had the option of hatarat nedarim by submitting to the religious leader’s authority.  The Chida also noted that be-di’avad – after the fact – it suffices for the person to stand before the scholar and ask for annulment, even if he does not come with a sense of submission.  Therefore, Pinchas is faulted for insisting upon the ideal standards of hatarat nedarim, rather than enabling hatarat nedarim on the lower standard. 


            Towards the end of Parashat Masei the Torah presents the laws of the arei miklat – the cities designated to protect inadvertent killers from the victims’ vengeful family members.  The Torah requires an inadvertent killer to relocate in an ir miklat and remain there until the kohen gadol dies.  However, this halakha applies only in very specific cases, namely, if the killer was guilty of negligence, but he was not negligent enough that the accident can be viewed almost as intentional.  If the incident is considered “karov le-meizid” – “approaching intentional” – then the killer does not deserve the expiation offered by relocation in an ir miklat, and so this requirement does not apply.

            In describing the kind of accident that requires relocation in an ir miklat, the Torah writes, “Ve-im be-feta be-lo eiva hadafo” – “If he pushed him suddenly, without malice” (35:22).  The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (7b) interprets the term “be-feta” (“suddenly”) to mean that the encounter which resulted in the killing was unanticipated, to the exclusion of a case of “keren zavit” – where one collided with somebody as he was walking around a sharp corner, where his field of vision was limited.  Rashi explains this as referring to a person carrying a knife who rounds a sharp corner and collides with somebody, inadvertently stabbing him.  Since in such a case one cannot see if anybody is coming from the other direction, he is expected to exercise special caution, and if he fails to do so, then his level of guilt is too high to qualify as an “inadvertent” killer.  The Gemara then comments that the next phrase in the verse, “be-lo eiva” (“without malice”), implies that the requirement of ir miklat does not apply if one accidently kills somebody whom he despises.  In such a case, there is reason to suspect that the incident was not entirely accidental, and the killer is not given the opportunity to atone for his wrongdoing by relocating in an ir miklat.

            It is perhaps noteworthy that these two inferences are made in conjunction with one another.  Chazal seem to equate, or at least compare, these two situations – walking with a knife around a sharp corner, and encountering a foe; if either of these two incidents results in an accidental murder, the culprit is guilty of quasi-intentional murder.  The implication, perhaps, is that being around one’s enemy is akin to carrying a knife in a place where it can pose danger.  Just as one carrying a knife while rounding a corner must exercise special caution, similarly, a person who encounters somebody he does not like must exercise special caution.  This, too, is considered a potentially “dangerous” situation that could result in harm.

            Although we all feel fairly confident that we would not resort to killing somebody whom we do not like, this timeless message is no less relevant or vital.  Generally, we act especially cordial and gracious to people whom we like, and we are impatient, discourteous or outright malevolent towards those whom we dislike.  The Gemara here teaches us that being around people we dislike is a “dangerous” situation which requires caution and careful consideration.  It is specifically when dealing witch such people that we must be especially patient, indulgent and careful not to offend or cause them any sort of harm.


            The Torah in Parashat Matot (31) tells of the war which Benei Yisrael waged against Midyan in retaliation for that nation’s role in the incident of Ba’al Pe’or.  Rashi (31:5), citing the Midrash, tells that after Moshe received the command to wage this war and set out to assemble an army, the men of Benei Yisrael were reluctant to enlist (as suggested by the term “va-yimaseru,” which implies a degree of coercion).  The reason, Rashi explains, is because God had told Moshe that he would die after this war was successfully fought.  Benei Yisrael thus wanted to delay this campaign, seeking to prolong their beloved leader’s life.  Rashi concludes:

This teaches you the praise of the shepherds of Israel, how beloved they are to Israel.  Before they heard of his [imminent] passing, what does it say – “soon they will stone me!” – but once they heard that Moshe’s death was dependent upon the revenge against Midyan, they did not want to go until they were conscripted against their will.

Rashi notes that many years earlier, during the incident of Masa U-meriva (Shemot 17:4), the people were enraged at Moshe and nearly stoned him, whereas now, they did not want to see him die, and avoided launching a campaign that needed to be completed before his death.  From this contrast, Rashi comments, we see “the praise of the shepherds of Israel,” that they are “beloved to Israel.”

            Many writers addressed the question of how Moshe’s near assassination could possibly be seen as an expression of love and affection on the part of the people.  While we can certainly appreciate the love shown by the people through their refusal to enlist in the army, seeking to delay Moshe’s death, how is this affection seen in the contrast between this context and the nation’s nearly violent outburst at Masa U-meriva?

            The Yalkut Moshe (cited in Rav Chaim Yaakov Blum’s Pirchei Rashi) suggests that constant, unbridled affection does not necessarily reflect positively upon a leader.  If a leader is never subject to his constituent’s criticism and grumblings, this might be the result of ineffective leadership, his failure to lead and guide, and his kowtowing to their preferences.  The “praise” of Moshe was the fact that he did not always ingratiate himself to the people, and yet, in the end, they admired, respected and loved him.  The sign of an effective leader is not always unfettered deference and affection, but rather deference and affection that ultimately prevail over the tension that often must exist between a leader and his constituents.  Moshe was thus praised for earning the people’s esteem despite having endured a fair share of unpleasantness and strife, which is so often par for the course when trying to effectively lead and guide.


            Parashat Masei begins with a list of the all the places where Benei Yisrael encamped over the course of their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness.  The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 22) comments:

Why were all these journeys privileged to be written in the Torah?  Because they welcomed Yisrael, and the Almighty will grant them reward in the future, as it says, ‘The desert and arid land shall rejoice…it shall blossom like a lily’ (Yeshayahu 35:1).  And if this is so regarding a desert for welcoming Israel, all the more so for one who welcomes Torah scholars into his home.”

The Midrash writes that the names of the areas where Benei Yisrael encamped in the wilderness were given a “privilege” by being mentioned in the Torah, and these desert regions will one day blossom in “reward” for their “kindness” in “hosting” Benei Yisrael.  Certainly, then, those who perform the kindness of hosting Torah scholars in their homes will be rewarded in full.

            Chazal here pick up on the fact that the Torah mentions all forty-two locations where Benei Yisrael encamped, including those where nothing noteworthy occurred.  The very fact that Benei Yisrael encamped at these sites during this critical period in their history lends them significance and makes them worthy of being mentioned.  This demonstrates the importance that the Torah affords to the “behind-the-scenes” activities that are needed as part of the process of realizing lofty goals.  Along the pursuit of major and significant endeavors, there are many seemingly minor roles that need to be filled to facilitate the undertaking.  Many of the locations listed by the Torah in Parashat Masei are infertile, inhabitable and generally unimpressive, and were not the scenes of any particular, especially significant events.  Yet, they are deemed significant because they played a “supporting role” in facilitating Benei Yisrael’s development and journey to their homeland.  Likewise, any seemingly small role that is filled to help realize a meaningful goal is to be viewed with significance.  Any practical assistance given to help achieve the Jewish Nation’s goals is valuable and worthy of reward.  The Midrash gives the particular example of supporting Torah scholarship, but the basic notion extends to all important, idealistic pursuits.  No role is a “small role” if it helps achieve something important and significant.  Even a barren, empty wasteland can be seen as “blossoming” if it is used for a meaningful and valuable purpose.  We must therefore never shy away from even the seemingly small and trivial jobs that need to be filled at home or in the community, as they all contribute to the “journey” that we take as a nation to bring glory to God and represent Him to mankind.