JTS Torah Commentary
Parashat Mattot – Mas'ei 5766
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
July 22, 2006 27 Tammuz, 5766
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
The stirring words of the medieval poet of Zion, Yehudah HaLevi, echo through each and every generation: "My heart is in the East, and I am in the far reaches of the West." At no other time is this heartfelt cry more deeply felt than when Israel is under attack. These days are profoundly trying times for Israel and all of the Jewish people. Yet, history shapes who we are as a people. History is a witness to the resilience of the Jewish people under fire; and once again, the Jewish people will emerge stronger and more secure from this crisis. Our parashah this week, Parashat Mattot–Mas'ei — the concluding Torah reading of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers — teaches an important lesson about the significance of history.
The second half of our parashah, Mas'ei, opens with a detailed and lengthy inventory of all of Israel's encampments as the people journey through the desert: "Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord. Their marches, by starting points, were as follows . . . the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham" (Numbers 33:2–6). Why delineate this seemingly endless route? Rashi, in his commentary, offers one interpretation. Quoting Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, Rashi explains that the Torah's intent is to underscore God's mercy — that even though God decreed that the Israelites should wander for forty years, our parashah enumerates some twenty stations during thirty–eight years of wandering. Far from being "as a driven leaf," the Israelites were able to settle and rest at a number of points along the journey. A second interpretation is offered by the great Israeli rabbi of our generation, Rabbi Shmuel Avidor–HaCohen, who quotes the words of Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, author of the Torah commentary Al HaTorah: "The Torah details the comings and goings of Israel in this great parashah to teach us that the chronicles of Israel, its history and events, may also be considered Torah; history is required study!"
Nowhere does this lesson of history prove more critical than in the present conflict in which Israel finds itself. This war is about the right of the State of Israel to exist; it is about the right of the Jewish people to a homeland. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine. The Jews accepted; the Arabs rejected. In 1967, the Egyptian dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, threatened Israel with annihilation and blocked the Straits of Tiran. Israel responded preemptively and secured the future and security of the state in defensible borders. The Arab response was categorically: "no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace." In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an effort to retake territories lost in the Six Day War. Subsequently, both the PLO and Iran have used Lebanese territory as surrogate staging grounds for terrorist attacks against Israel. On May 24, 2000, after twenty years of occupation in southern Lebanon (with the purpose of protecting northern Israel), Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces, fulfilling UN Resolution 425. The Lebanese government stood idly by as Hezbollah took control — firing at Israeli troops as they withdrew. From that day, the Lebanese government has refused to deploy troops to prevent Hezbollah's terrorist activities in the southern part of the country. Iran and Syria underwrite Hezbollah's activities. And they are the ones that continue to fund Palestinian suicide bombers that kill innocent Israeli civilians. It is indeed a Torah commandment to learn history. European governments would especially do well to note this important lesson.
May we all pray for the peace of Israel, this week and always.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz