The double Parasha this week of Mattot Massei brings the Book of Bamidbar to a close in a reading of some 224 verses. Mattot refers to “tribes” and Massei refers to “journeys”.
The readings talk about vows, wars, division of spoils, the request of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh to stay on the east of the Jordan, the listing of the stops on our journeying and the boundaries of the Land, Cities of Refuge and the limitations of the promise to the daughters of Zelophedad. We are about to move from promises in the wilderness to the practical application to real life as we move on.
Vows and oaths are obligations created by words. The laws of a vow, (which include 17 verses dealing with women) seem fixed. In reality, release from a vow was always under discussion. R. Yehoshua comments that God, when exasperated with our behaviour, disavows us on more than one occasion. If God can succumb to an impulsive vow how much more so for we, who are human and endlessly fallible?
The rules of warfare and the treatment of captives are savage but seem to have been rarely followed. They would be unacceptable to us today although sadly we have seen such scenes in our own times.
Eleazar sets out laws for koshering plundered goods. “Tevilat Keilim” (whether or not, in today’s world, a captured laptop computer can be koshered by throwing it into a Mikveh is an interesting question).
The boundaries of the Land are set out. Next week, as we read Devarim, the boundaries are somewhat different. The Land is much bigger. There are two maps.
Cities of Refuge would not be practical today, but the idea points the way to equality of justice. (We are not the only people to have had Cities of Refuge. On Hawaii there was such a city up to the 19th century where someone who had broken a taboo could be forgiven by a local priest).
As for the daughters of Zelophedad the tribal leaders object to the apparently unforeseen consequence of the legal revision reported in last week’s Parasha.
In each instance halacha has to contend with realities. Nothing is set in stone.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book "God in Search of Man”, wrote:
There is a partnership of God and Israel in regard to both the world and the Torah: He created the earth and we till the soil; He gave us the text and we refine and complete it.