Parshat Matot - Masei
Moshe teaches the rules and restrictions governing oaths and vows especially the role of a husband or father in either upholding or annulling a vow. Bnei Yisrael wage war against Midian. They kill the five Midianite kings, all the males and Bilaam. Moshe is upset that women were taken captive. They were catalysts for the immoral behavior of the Jewish People. He rebukes the officers. The spoils of war are counted and apportioned. The commanding officers report to Moshe that there was not one casualty among Bnei Yisrael. They bring an offering that is taken by Moshe and Elazar and placed in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting). The Tribes of Gad and Reuven, who own large quantities of livestock, petition Moshe to allow them to remain east of the Jordan and not enter the Land of Israel. They explain that the land east of the Jordan is quite suitable grazing land for their livestock. Moshe's initial response is that this request will discourage the rest of Bnei Yisrael, and that it is akin to the sin of the spies. They assure Moshe that they will first help conquer Israel, and only then will they go back to their homes on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moshe grants their request on condition that they uphold their part of the deal.
The Torah names all 42 encampments of Bnei Yisrael on their 40-year journey from the Exodus until the crossing of the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael. G-d commands Bnei Yisrael to drive out the Canaanites from Eretz Yisrael and to demolish every vestige of their idolatry. Bnei Yisrael are warned that if they fail to rid the land completely of the Canaanites, those who remain will be "pins in their eyes and thorns in their sides." The boundaries of the Land of Israel are defined, and the tribes are commanded to set aside 48 cities for the levi'im, who do not receive a regular portion in the division of the Land. Cities of refuge are to be established: Someone who murders unintentionally may flee there. The daughters of Tzelofchad marry members of their tribe so that their inheritance will stay in their own tribe. Thus ends the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth of the Books of the Torah.
The Biggest Oil Spill in The World
“G-d said to Moshe, saying, ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites’.” (31:2)
Rabbi Berel Wein once remarked, "All of my stories are true; just some of them haven't happened yet."
The following story – though not one of Rabbi Wein's – falls into this category.
A well-known rabbi was standing in line at the “Customs” check at a certain airport. In front of him were two equally religious-looking gentlemen. The customs officer came over to the two and asked them if they had anything to declare. They replied, "No." The customs officer, however, decided to ask them to open their suitcases.
After a few seconds of careful probing in the lining of the case, somewhat reluctantly the cases disgorged a fair number of diamonds. They lay there on the counter. Both men collapsed in tears at the terrible desecration of G-d’s name that they had perpetrated.
The custom’s officer turned his attention to the next in line, the rabbi, and asked him: “Anything to declare, sir?”
He replied “No, officer.”
“Sir, would you mind opening your case, please.”
“Officer, I will happily open my case, but I think I should tell you that you are wasting your time.”
“Oh yes, sir. And why might that be?” replied the officer, a cynical smile playing around the corner of his lips. The rabbi continued. “Officer. I am an Orthodox Jew and the Torah strictly prohibits smuggling.”
“I see, sir.” said the customs officer, sarcastically “And what, pray, are these two religious Jewish gentlemen who preceded you? Martians?”
Replied the rabbi, “Which two religious gentlemen are you referring to, officer? I’m afraid I don’t see religious Jews. I see only diamond smugglers.”
When an Orthodox Jew behaves in a despicable fashion the damage is felt on the other side of the cosmos. Someone who wears a kippa is an ambassador for the Jewish People to the whole world. However, the world will not only judge Judaism based on the actions of this person. They will also judge its Author.
Everything in this world was created for the honor of its Creator. When a person brings credit to the Jewish People, he also brings honor to He who chose us from all the peoples, and he fulfills the purpose of his creation and Creation itself. If he does the reverse, G-d forbid, he both writes himself out of reality and damages the whole cosmos.
He has blemished Creation more than the biggest crude-oil spill in the world.
But there’s another side to chilul Hashem (desecrating G-d’s Name). When a Jew sees or hears someone doing an unspeakable act, he thinks to himself, “How could he have done that? I would never do such a thing in a million years! You know something? I’m not such a bad person after all. I’m really a tzaddik. My small transgressions are nothing compared with this guy. You know something? I’m really okay.”
It takes a lifetime’s work to correct the flaws in our character, both big and small. The only way we have a hope of improving ourselves is if we sensitize ourselves to our shortcomings and realize that we have a long way to go. When someone behaves in a grossly immoral fashion, it makes us think that we are really okay because we would never sink to that level, and thus we give up trying to be better. As a result, not only do we suffer, but the whole world becomes a darker place because we have given up on the light.
In this week’s Torah portion, there is an interesting anomaly. G-d says “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.” And in the very next verse, Moshe directs the Jewish People “to inflict G-d’s vengeance against Midian.” So which is it? Is it G-d’s vengeance or is it ours?
The answer is that at the deepest level the Jewish People and G-d are inextricably linked.
When we blemish the good name of the Jewish People, whether through some gross illegal act or the smallest complacency that tells us "I'm okay, Jack!", we cause a diminution of G-d’s light in the world.
And when we do something that brings credit to the Jews — even if that act is the smallest attempt to improve our character and about which no one will ever know — we bring the whole of mankind closer to G-d.