This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
The Torah calls attention to two dangers facing the Israelites in their encounter with Moav. The first is the danger of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures need not involve active enmity; it is possible for a culture to succumb to too much love just as surely as of repression. But there is a second danger as well: that of moral degradation. Israel’s encounter with Moav involved both of these pitfalls and resulted in a rift between the two nations that would not be healed for generations.
One of the lessons of Parashat Balak is that things aren’t always what they seem, that human intentions don’t always pan out the way we imagine, and that there is an overall scheme of things invisible to the limited sight of a single generation.
The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Most people know that the story of Noah contains the first reference to law: the Seven Noahide Commandments are seen as the minimal requirements for civilized human society. But what many don’t know is that there is a second set of “Noahide Commandments” derived from this week’s parasha. These laws are not about human society, but about the survival of all life on earth.
It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. One of those worldviews is the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. B’reishit puts the emphasis from the very beginning on human free will.
The deception of his brother and his father must have weighed heavily on him. For nearly two decades he has lived away from home; ample time for the event to magnify itself in his mind and become a fixation. What else could I have done? He knows that he did wrong. He also knows that it was necessitated by the situation.