S.A.L.T. - Parashat Matot - Masei 5780 / 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather 
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
22 Tamuz, July 14.

Motzaei Shabbat
            Parashat Matot tells of the war Benei Yisrael waged against Midyan, and the large stockpiles of spoils which they brought back with them.  We read (31:14) that Moshe reacted angrily when he saw that the soldiers had also brought with them female captives.  This war was waged to avenge Midyan’s role in the scheme to lure Benei Yisrael to illicit sexual relationships and idol worship, and bringing the women to the Israelite camp posed the risk of this problem recurring.  Moshe sharply berated the commanders for bringing the female captives to the camp.
            The Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (66b) draws a connection between Moshe’s angry reaction to the commanders, and the next section (31:21-24), which tells of the instructions given to the soldiers by Elazar, the kohen gadaol.  Elazar presented the guidelines for purging the food utensils brought from Midyan so they could be used by Benei Yisrael, and for the soldiers’ personal purification after having come in contact with human corpses.  The Gemara comments, surprisingly, that these laws were presented by Elazar, and not by Moshe, because “i’aleim minei” – Moshe “forgot” this information.  On the basis of this episode, the Gemara establishes the rule, “Any person who gets angry – if he is a scholar, then his scholarship leaves him.”  Although Moshe’s criticism of the commanders was warranted, the Gemara finds fault in Moshe’s becoming angry, stating that he was punished for his inappropriate response by forgetting the halakhot which needed to be taught to the returning soldiers.
            The Gemara’s comments regarding this episode perhaps provide us with some insight into anger and its effects.  Often, anger occurs when we place too much emphasis on, and pay too much attention to, something wrong which was done.  The difference between valid and even strong disapproval and anger lies in the extent to which we focus on the act in question.  The Gemara here depicts Moshe as focusing too intently on the commanders’ mistake, such that he lost sight of the need to instruct the soldiers with regard to the utensils and their purification.  He placed too much emphasis on one issue that arose when the soldiers returned from battle, such that he overlooked the other.
            Anger can have a number of different destructive consequences, but the Gemara here seems to point specifically to its effect of blinding us to other important matters.  When we feel angry, we are fixated on one particular problem, compromising our mindfulness of other concerns and responsibilities.  We avoid anger by putting wrongful acts into a broader perspective, and keeping focused on everything going on around us that demands our attention, without lending disproportionate importance to just one problem.
The Torah in the beginning of Parashat Masei traces the geography of Benei Yisrael’s journey through the desert, listing all the forty-two stations where they encamped along their route from Egypt to their final encampment on the eastern banks of the Jordan River.  One of the first stops listed is Ba’al Tzefon (33:7), referring to the time when, just days after the Exodus, God had Benei Yisrael retreat and change direction, and head towards the Sea of Reeds, after encamping near Ba’al Tzefon
Rashi, in Sefer Shemot (14:2), writes (citing the Mekhilta) that Ba’al Tzefon was one of the Egyptian idols, and the only of the idols to have survived the night of the Exodus.  As we read here in Parashat Masei (33:4), God “brought judgments” upon all the Egyptian dieties, referring to the supernatural destruction of the statues (see Rashi to Shemot 12:12).  God spared only one idol – Ba’al Tzefon – and then had Benei Yisrael retreat and encamp near this idol after leaving Egypt.  Rashi explains that this was done to mislead to Pharaoh to assume that God could not overpower Ba’al Tzefon, and he would then delude himself into thinking that he could defeat God and bring Benei Yisrael back to Egypt.  And so Pharaoh mobilized an army and pursued Benei Yisrael – and the Egyptian army was then drowned at sea.
            Rav Yisrael of Modhitz, in Divrei Yisrael (here in Parashat Matot), offers an explanation for why specifically Ba’al Tzefon was chosen from among all the Egyptian statues as the one that God spared.  He cites the theory developed by Keli Yakar (Shemot 14:2), establishing that Ba’al Tzefon was Egypt’s god of wealth.  Hence, the Rebbe of Modzitz writes, the survival of Ba’al Tzefon symbolizes the future “survival” of one pagan god – the god of wealth.  Rav Elimelekh of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelekh, shows how money is a modern-day “deity,” something which many regard as a “supreme power” of sorts, as the ultimate source of authority and blessing.  When paganism declined, and the world ceased believing in the power of idols and statues, the worship of wealth remained.  God set this precedent already at the time of the Exodus, when He destroyed all the Egyptian idols except one, the god of wealth, as if to warn us that even when the foolish worship of idols would all but disappear from the world, the equally foolish worship of wealth, the belief in wealth as the supreme force and the ultimate purpose of life, will remain.
Parashat Matot tells of the war God commanded Benei Yisrael to wage against the nation of Midyan, to avenge that nation’s role in the successful scheme to lure Benei Yisrael to engage in illicit relationships and worship idols.  The Torah relates that Moshe sent one thousand soldiers out to battle together with Pinchas (31:6), and Rashi brings a number of different explanations for why specifically Pinchas was sent to join the soldiers.  One explanation, cited from the Gemara (Sota 43a), is that Pinchas went “to take revenge for his mother’s father, Yosef.”  The Gemara states that Pinchas’ mother (the wife of Elazar, son and successor of Aharon) was a descendant of Yosef, and thus Pinchas joined this battle to avenge Midyan’s role in the sale of Yosef to Egypt as a slave.  As we read in Sefer Bereishit (37:36), it was the “Medanim” – commonly identified as Midyanim – who brought Yosef to Egypt and sold him as a slave to the Egyptian nobleman Potifar. 
Therefore, as Benei Yisrael set out to wage war against Midyan, Pinchas joined the troops in order to avenge Midyan’s having sold his ancestor as a slave.
The Gemara here points to a connection between two seemingly unrelated events – Midyan’s scheme to lure Benei Yisrael to sin, and Midyan’s having brought Yosef to Egypt as a slave centuries earlier.  How might we understand the association drawn between these two events?
Keli Yakar explains by noting that by bringing Yosef to Potifar, the Midyanim were, in a sense, responsible for sending him – and, later, all Benei Yisrael – into the decadent society of Egypt.  Just as the Midyanites actively lured Benei Yisrael to engage in immoral conduct, similarly, the Midyanite merchants who sold Yosef to Egypt placed Benei Yisrael in the position of having to withstand the lures of a promiscuous culture.
We might add that the Gemara, in establishing Midyan’s role in the sale of Yosef, cites specifically the verse which tells of the Midyanim selling Yosef to Potifar, the final verse in the story of the sale of Yosef.  Curiously, the Gemara chose not to cite an earlier verse in the story, in which the Midyanim are first mentioned (37:28).  The reason, perhaps, is because the Gemara here focuses specifically on the fact that the Midyanites were responsible for placing Yosef in the home of Potifar – where he would be tested by Potifar’s wife, who attempted to seduce him.  If so, then the connection being drawn is between the intentional seduction of Benei Yisrael by Midyan during the incident of Ba’al Pe’or, and the Midyanite merchants’ indirect role in Yosef’s facing the challenge of the lures of Potifar’s wife.  The same Midyanites who were, in some way, responsible for Yosef’s seduction later conspired to seduce the men of Benei Yisrael.
Of course, the merchants did not realize they would be causing Yosef to be lured to sin, and it is unlikely that the Gemara, or Keli Yakar, actually intends to blame them for this particular challenge which Yosef later faced.  Rather, it would seem that the Gemara here teaches us to be mindful of the potential long-term impact of our interpersonal conduct.  Just as it is clearly wrong to actively try causing a person to sin, we must also try to avoid indirectly placing our fellow in a situation of spiritual or moral challenge.  Everything we do impacts others in some way.  The way we speak and the way we conduct ourselves affects the people around us.  We must try to speak and act in a manner that spreads goodness, virtue and sanctity, and avoid speaking and acting in ways that have the opposite effect.
            Parashat Masei begins with a list of Benei Yisrael’s forty-two journeys during the forty years from the Exodus until their final encampment before crossing into the Land of Israel.  The Torah painstakingly lists all the stations where Benei Yisrael encamped along their route to Eretz Yisrael, and different explanations have been offered for why the Torah found it necessary to list these stations.  Rashi, citing Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, explains by showing that twenty-two of the forty-two journeys occurred in the first and last years of this forty-year period.  This means that in the interim thirty-eight years, after God decreed in response to the sin of the spies that Benei Yisrael would remain in the desert for a total of forty years, they journeyed only twenty times.  This list was presented, then, to demonstrate that although God severely punished Benei Yisrael, and had them remain in the desert, He did not force them to constantly move about, and they experienced relative stability during this period.
            Malbim offers a different explanation, noting that the Torah introduces this section by stating, “These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the land of Egypt…” (33:1).  Rather than describe this list as a list of stages undertaken en route to Benei Yisrael’s destination – the Land of Israel – it instead speaks of these journeys as the stages of Benei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt.  Malbim explains that these journeys marked the stages of not only Benei Yisrael’s geographic progression, but, more importantly, the profound spiritual process which they underwent.  They needed a lengthy period of transformation, in order to successfully dissociate themselves from the pagan beliefs and culture which they had absorbed over the course of the centuries they spent in Egypt.  The forty-two stations are significant, according to Malbim, not as simply geographic landmarks, but rather in emphasizing the numerous stages that were needed for Benei Yisrael to rid themselves of the ideas and behaviors which they had taken with them from Egypt.
            According to Malbim, then, the Torah presented this list to instruct that change requires a lengthy, difficult process.  We cannot expect ourselves, or others, to rid ourselves of our faults and vices overnight, or even in a day, week or month.  Change happens little by little, with occasional setbacks along the way, just as Benei Yisrael’s progression was not without numerous obstacles and failures.  We must focus on trying to becoming just a bit better each day, realizing that the process of “leaving Egypt” is a lengthy, difficult, complex process that takes time, patience, strength and resolve to complete.
            The Torah in Parashat Masei lists the forty-two locations where Benei Yisrael encamped over the course of their forty-year trek from Egypt to the banks of Jordan River.  One of these stations is called “Ritma” (33:18), and several commentators explain that this refers to the site of the sin of the spies, in the Paran desert.  They reached this conclusion on the basis of the fact that the Torah tells of Benei Yisrael journeying to Ritma from Chatzeirot, and, as we read earlier in Sefer Bamidbar (12:16), Benei Yisrael encamped in the Paran desert after journeying.  And, it was there in the Paran desert where Moshe sent the spies to scout the Land of Israel (13:3).
            To explain why the site of the sin of the spies is called by the name “Ritma,” Rashi writes that this name is associated with lashon ha-ra – negative speech.  Rashi cites a verse in Tehillim (120:4) that describes the evil of “lashon remiya” – “a deceptive tongue,” comparing deceitful speech to “sharpened arrows of strongmen” and also to “gachalei retamim” – coals made from “retamim” wood.  Both Rashi and Metzudat David, in their respective commentaries to Tehillim, explain that this particular type of ember appears to have extinguished even though it still burns in its interior.  It is thus used as an allegory for a fraudster, who appears innocent but schemes to inflict harm.  The site of the sin of the spies was named “Ritma,” Rashi writes, as an allusion to the word “retamim,” which is associated with “lashon remiya,” because the spies spoke evil about the Land of Israel.
            We might wonder why Rashi draws a connection between the sin of the spies and “gachalei retamim,” when the spies did not, seemingly, deceive in this manner.  The allegory as “gachalei retamim,” as we saw, refers to presenting oneself as virtuous when he in fact plots to inflict harm.  How were the spies guilty of this offense?  In what way did they present themselves in a deceitful, misleading manner?
            The explanation, perhaps, is that lashon ha-ra is the converse of this form of deceit.  Speaking deceitfully means appearing noble whilst concealing the evil intentions beneath the surface.  When one speaks lashon ha-ra about another person (or, in the spies’ case, about Eretz Yisrael), he does just the opposite to that person – he paints an evil exterior which conceals the beautiful interior.  The sin of the spies resembles “gachalei retamim” in the sense that they presented Eretz Yisrael in a misleading way, depicting it as an undesirable land which could not be inhabited, concealing the special beauty and sanctity that characterizes the Land of Israel.  Like the “evil tongue” described in Tehillim, they misrepresented – though not themselves, but rather the Land of Israel.
            Just as it is wrong to misrepresented ourselves, to feign virtue to conceal harmful intent, so it is wrong to misrepresent other people, to speak evil about them while ignoring the vast amounts of goodness within them.  We are to acknowledge and draw attention to the fine qualities of our fellowman, bringing other people’s inner greatness to the surface, rather than painting them in a negative light.
            The Torah in Parashat Matot tells of the request made by the tribes of Reuven and Gad to permanently settle in the area east of the Jordan River, which Benei Yisrael had seized from the Emorite kingdoms which had attacked them.  Moshe sharply berated Reuven and Gad for making such a request, which he understood as an implicit rejection of Eretz Yisrael, and a recurrence of the sin of the spies, when Benei Yisrael decided they would not enter the land God was giving them.  Reuven and Gad then clarified that their intention was for the tribes’ men to join the other tribes in conquering Eretz Yisrael, and only then return to their families in their homes east of the Jordan River.  Moshe then approved their request.
            As a number of commentators noted, Moshe expressed his approval with seemingly unnecessary verbosity.  After hearing Reuven and Gad’s pledge to join the other tribes in battle, Moshe replied by repeating everything they had said and stating that if they fulfill their promise, then they would be given permission to permanently settle the region east of the river.  Rather than simply state, “If you do this, then you can settle in the area,” Moshe instead reviewed Reuven and Gad’s terms in detail (32:20-24).  What’s more, after Moshe gave his approval, Reuven and Gad repeated their commitment to join the other tribes in battle (32:25-27).
            Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, cites an explanation for this seemingly superfluous exchange from Rav Azarya Figo’s Bina Le-ittim.  He explained that Moshe did not fully approve of Reuven and Gad’s terms.  They spoke of waging war “lifnei Benei Yisrael” – “before the Israelites” (32:17), indicating that they promised to fulfill their commitment to their fellow tribes.  Moshe, however, countered that they must go out to war “lifnei Hashem” – “before the Lord” (32:20), a phrase which Moshe repeats twice more in his response (32:21,22).  Moshe sought to impress upon Reuven and Gad that their obligation to join in the battle for Eretz Yisrael stemmed not merely from their responsibility to the rest of the nation, but also their responsibility to God.  If they perceived it only as an obligation they bore to the other tribes, then they might at some point devise a rationalization to excuse themselves from this duty.  Moshe therefore did not approve of Reuven and Gad’s plan, and proceeded to correct them – that they must wage war not only “before the Israelites,” but also “before the Lord,” out of a sense of obligation towards both Benei Yisrael and the Almighty.  He instructed, “Vi-hyitem nekiyim mei-Hashem u-mei-Yisrael” – “You shall be innocent before the Lord and before Israel” (32:22), that they must be driven by a sense of both moral and religious duty, to help their fellow Israelites and to serve their Creator.
            Moshe then concluded, “And if you do not do this, then you have hereby sinned to the Lord” (32:23).  Rav Mecklenberg explains this to mean that if Reuven and God would proceed to battle with a sense of duty only to the rest of the nation, and not also with a sense of obligation to God, then although they would be satisfying their obligation to Benei Yisrael, they would be sinning “to the Lord.”  Moshe warned them that they must act out of this dual commitment, to fulfill their duties to both their fellowmen and to the Almighty.
Reuven and Gad then responded, “Your servants shall do that which my master commands… You servants shall cross…before the Lord to war, as my master says” (32:25-27).  They pledged to follow Moshe’s instruction and proceed to battle not only “before the Israelites,” but also “before the Lord,” keenly aware of their responsibilities both to other people and to God.
            The Torah in Parashat Masei discusses the arei miklat – the cities designated as places of refuge for accidental killers, who would flee to these cities to protect themselves from the victim’s relatives seeking revenge.  This section includes as well a discussion of intentional murder, demanding that intentional killers be prosecuted and punished.  The Torah concludes by warning, “Ve-lo tachanifu et ha-aretz” (35:33), which Rashi, based on Targum Onkelos, interprets to mean, “Do not make the land evil.”  As the verse proceeds to explain, bloodshed brings guilt upon the land which must be erased through punishing the guilty party – either by exiling to an ir miklat, in the case of accidental murder caused through negligence, or by capital punishment, in the case of intentional murder.
            The Sifrei, cited by the Ramban, understands this verse as introducing the prohibition of “chanufa” – flattery.  The Ramban explains that according to the Sifrei, the Torah here forbids excusing murder on the basis of a person’s stature, which constitutes a form of flattery.
            Rav Moshe Feinstein, in Darash Moshe (cited and discussed by Rav Dovid Gottlieb), offers an insightful explanation for how to understand the word “tachanifu” according to Rashi’s interpretation of this warning as referring to a general tolerant attitude towards murder.  Rav Feinstein writes that we must refuse to tolerate murder for two reasons: the basic need to maintain peace and security, but also because of our respect for the intrinsic value of human life.  The first reason is intuitive and shared by virtually every civilized society.  In order for civilization to thrive, people need to live with safety and security, and this necessitates deterring would-be killers, both accidental and intentional.  However, if this is the only reason for punishing murderers, then people might excuse or even sanction murder that they perceive as beneficial to society.  They might come to approve of murdering those who they feel do not contribute to civilization, or whom they perceive as overburdening society, such as the infirm, the aged, the mentally incapacitated, or even entire ethnic groups whom they consider harmful.  Rav Feinstein explains on this basis the warning, “Ve-lo tachanifu et ha-aretz” – “Do not flatter the land.”  Flattery means according a wicked person more respect and importance than he or she deserves.  In this verse, Rav Feinstein writes, the Torah warns against giving too much importance to the “aretz,” to society’s economic development, by accepting the murder of those who are seen as burdens on the “aretz.”  The Torah calls upon us to oppose murder out of a respect for the innate, inherent value and sanctity of human life, and not due to any calculation or “cost-benefit analysis.”
            This concept can be applied not only to murder, but also to general mistreatment of people.  We are to respect and deal kindly with people not only because of the benefit we think they provide, but out of an awareness of the inherent value of every individual.  We are to recognize the divine spark and image with which all people were created, and show them respect irrespective of whether or how we feel they can benefit us or society generally.