20 Jul 2017 Matos-Masei: The Final Lesson of Bamidbar
With this week’s double parshios, Matos-Masei, we once again close the turbulent book of Bamidbar.
We have journeyed with the Israelites as they departed – triumphant – from Har Sinai and prepared for their entry into the Holy Land – נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, We are traveling, in 3 more days we will be there, to the place that G-d is giving to us, to Eretz Yisrael! (Bamidbar 10:29), Moshe, with great hope and anticipation, declares to his father-in-law, Yisro. We – together, all of us – are traveling to the place… Or so they thought…
We have seen the people complain about the manna, as they desired the “free food” they ate in Egypt – when they were free of mitzvos! – and their base cravings and pagan desire for meat (Chapter 11).
We have learned about the lashon harah that Miriam spoke, with her brother Aharon, about their brother, Moshe Rabbeinu (Chapter 12).
We have watched, saddened and in despair, as the nation rejects the good, good Land that Hashem has promised them (Chapters 13-14), with the sin – and slander – of the spies.
We have mourned on that first Tisha B’Av, when the people cried for no reason (14:1) וַתִּשָּׂא, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיִּתְּנוּ, אֶת-קוֹלָם; וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא – and the entire assembly raised up and lifted their voices, and the nation cried on that night… And their crying foreshadowed our cries over destruction for generations (Taanis 29a).
We have wondered how Korach and his men thought their rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon would be successful! For one who rebels against G-d’s chosen will surely, ultimately, fall and fail (Chapters 16-17).
We have mourned for our three great leaders – Miriam, Moshe and Aharon – upon whom entry to the Land was forbidden – both in life and in death! And we have accepted that not everything (nay, most things) which G-d decrees falls within the realm of human accessibility and reason. And so, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, this is the law of the Torah (19:2) – and we accept that which we cannot fathom or change.
We have marveled at the majesty, the poetry, the prose, and the beauty of the blessings of wicked Bila’am. For only those words which G-d put into his mouth, was he able to speak. מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל – How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (24:5).
We have seen the people fall to the lowest lows of the idol worship of Ba’al Pe’or and their lewdness with the Midyanite women, for which G-d – and Pinchas – exacted harsh punishment and retribution (Chapter 25).
In a book which seemingly details one sin, and failing, after another; in a book which brings our triumphant march to the Holy Land to an abrupt halt; in a book wherein Jewish history and destiny are inverted… we marvel at the tenacity and survival of our people and our Compassionate G-d, who grants us life, yet while we sin.
What is the final subject matter of such a book? The last thoughts as the curtain closes on Bamidbar?
We learn of the story of the Bnos Tzelafchad – the five daughters of Tzelafchad, from the tribe of Menashe, who approached Moshe and said: אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר – Our father died in the desert… כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ – and he died from his sin alone (Rashi: he desecrated Shabbos in the desert by gathering sticks), and he did not have sons. Why should his portion in the land, his inheritance, not be passed on to us, his daughters!? תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ – give us a portion in the Land, amongst the brothers of our father (27:1-4).
And Moshe brought the matter before Hashem, and Hashem told Moshe the daughters of Tzelafchad were correct – and deserving of their father’s portion (ibid, v.7).
As the book of Bamidbar closes, further laws regarding the portion of these women are detailed (Chapter 36). And as their story ends, so does the Book of Bamidbar.
Why, we might ask, of all the relevant, albeit painful, sometimes hopeful and more often sinful, topics outlined in this 4th book of the Torah, does the Torah choose to end with the story of the portion of Tzelafchad?
Perhaps there is a profundity contained within their story, which we would all do well to keep in mind – for ourselves and those around us.
The five daughters of Tzelafchad admit and acknowledge that their father died because of his sin – כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת – and he died from his sin. He died prematurely in the desert for desecrating the Shabbos. Why should such a sinner be worthy of a portion in the Land? Why should such a sinner be worthy of Divine compassion? Why should such a sinner be worthy of any sort of consideration…?
And yet! כֵּן, בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת – The Almighty declared that the daughters of Tzelafchad were correct in requesting a portion in the Land, to carry on their father’s name. That even though he died of his sin, a sinner, nevertheless, he was still worthy.
How often we look down upon ourselves for wrongs we have committed. How often we think that we – or those around us! – are beyond hope, beyond repair, beyond forgiveness, for the error of our ways. How often we become self-dejected because we cannot break our negative habits and defective middos (character traits). How often we think that we, perhaps, and those around us, are not worthy of Divine forgiveness, mercy, and compassion.
And yet – here at the end of a book of sin, after sin, after sin… – the final message of the Book of Bamidbar is the story of Tzelafchad. While it is true that he sinned, his portion and name should not be erased. His daughters will receive his portion. His eternity in the Land will be passed on.
On the simple level, this is a story of inheritance that goes to the daughters, in the absence of sons.
On a profound level, it is a story of never giving up on ourselves, or those around us.
There is no more fitting message and lesson with which to end this 4th book, a book that is essentially about the errors and failings of our nation. We close Bamidbar with the understanding that no matter how far we fall and fail, the Jewish people as a nation, and each Jew as an individual, always has merits and there is hope for us yet.
May we merit a Chodesh Av of consolation, a month of renewal and hope, as our days of mourning are changed to days of rejoicing… halavay (would that it be so), speedily and in our time.
חזק חזק ונתחזק – Be Strong, Be Strong, and may we be strengthened!
בברכת חדש טוב ושבת שלום,