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Mattot Masei – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

As we reach the end of Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, we look back over our journey in the wilderness and receive instructions for what would lie ahead . There are ideas here which are very challenging to the way we see our own world and what was acceptable at that time.

Vows are important declarations of intent, either to God or to one's fellows. John Locke, an English philosopher of the 17th century and seen as the father of toleration and liberalism held that citizenship should not be extended to atheists. Not believing in God, they could not be trusted to honour their word. How then can we interpret the ability for woman’s vows to be abrogated by a man even after a divorce?

The war against Midian was to be carried out in a devastatingly cruel fashion. The fact that Moses’ wife Zipporah and his father-in-Law Jethro were Midianites did not distract from the memory of what had happened at Peor where, on Balaam’s advice, the women enticed the men of Israel. Joshua would follow the same path when we crossed the Jordan. The people and customs of the Promised Land were to be utterly destroyed to avoid the risk of deviation from the covenant.

Defined borders of the land are set out here in the Sedra Maasei but when Moses speaks in Devarim the borders have changed.

Some matters did need to be revisited at the time.

The tribe of Manasseh wished to change the details concerning the decision for the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophedad. Moses asks God. The response is in the same format that the daughters’ initial request was answered. At that first time God said “Zelophehad's daughters speak justly”; The new response is in the same form “The children of Joseph speak justly”.

Moses did not just lead us but negotiated with God and with the people. In these Sedrot we looked back on 40 years of wandering. In the modern era we have had the experience of over 2000 years of dispersion to inform us.

All the places where we have stayed over the centuries have thrown up challenges but somehow, we have survived. By understanding history and viewing it through the perspective of our relationship to God we build the modern world.

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