According to Ibn Ezra and Chizzkuni, the beginning of Parashah Mattot occurs immediately after the war with Midian in chapter 31 [which means this passage is out of chronological order similar to Numbers 1:1 and 9:1]. I concur with this perspective for two reasons. First, it provides a very important juxtaposition that teaches whoever vows [this parashah] to offer a sacrifice [last week’s parashah] is obligated to fulfill his promise on the coming Yom Tov when he visits the Temple [or in the case of these people, the Tabernacle]. Second, on this side of the parashah separation, we are reminded of the importance of keeping our vows. Why? When we sent the 12,000 men of war against Midian [along with 12,000 men of prayer and 12,000 logistics engineers], we were to enact revenge upon the Midianites and we were allowed to capture the gold, the jewelry, and the cattle. However, we brought back far more than we were supposed to bring and we broke our vow [we once said, “Whatever G-d says to you, we will do and we will listen”]: we brought the children and the really hot women as well. It took a good tongue lashing from Moshe to remind us that we fell because of our interaction with these women. After a noble and honorable inspection of the captured women was conducted, only those who did not participate in the frivolity sirvived. These females were taught, eventually converted to Judaism, and married within the tribes.
Interestingly, the text [31:49] tells us, “vilo nifkad memenoo ish,” “and not one man was missing.” After the war with Midian, the Children of Israel found that not one of their numbers had been killed. This was a sign that none of the fighters had sinned during the battle by losing his faith in G-d. Rabbi Yaacov Peterseil noted that the value of that phrase is 718. In like manner, the gematria of “la’aveirot” [which means “for sins”] is also 718. He concluded that none of the fighters fell because of his sins.
After Elazar describes the method by which we can render the utensils captured from Midian kashrut and the spoils were divided among all the houses of Israel, Moshe begins a rather long list of campsites. This is how the second Torah portion, Massei, begins.
Ibn Ezra and Ramban take opposite sides of an interesting debate that I guess in the grand scheme of things really matters not, but it’s interesting how the Rebbes of old are able to take passages we gloss over and find a way to argue and discuss. The text says, “Moshe wrote their goings forth according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.” Ibn Ezra explains that the phrase “by the commandment of the Eternal” is connected with “according to their journeys,” meaning that all their journeys were by the commandment of Hashem, Ramban, however, rejects this explanation because this fact had already been expressed elsewhere in Scripture [where it states, “According to the commandment of Hashem they remained encamped and according to the commandment of Hashem they journeyed”]. Therefore, Ramban suggests that the list was done at the commandment of the L-rd.
I find greater comfort in Ramban’s explanation for this reason: The verse that introduces us to the list of campsites begins with “Their goings forth according to their journeys” and ends with the reverse, “their journeys according to their goings forth.” This is significant because Or haChaim noted that when we began our journeys, Hashem told Moshe to keep a careful record of our travels and encampments. Therefore Moshe wrote, “They journeyed from Raamses,” and when they made camp, he added, “and they encamped in Sukkot.” This pattern stays true throughout most of the 40 years’ journey. Once we reached our last stage, Hashem told Moshe to inscribe this list into the Torah exactly as he had written it over the years. Thus the verse means, “Moshe wrote their goings forth at the time of their journeys, as G-d had commanded him to do; and these are their journeys [which he recorded] as they were going forth.”
From Raamses to The Plains of Moav, 42 campsites are listed [interestingly, one could mention that the length of Jacob’s Trouble equals 42 months, but any significance is not part of this drash]. Victor Matthews noted, “The omission of important sites suggests that it is not a comprehensive list.” He speaks specifically of the locations Masseh and Meribah. However, let me quote an excerpt from Ramban’s commentary to the Torah. “Scripture [in Numbers 33:14] does not mention the miracle that occurred with the water in Marah, nor the daily wonder of manna, which took place in the wilderness of Sin. Nevertheless [it mentioned the giving of water at Rephidim] because this episode was an important event, since they tried G-d there, and that place was thereafter called Massah [Trying] and Meribah [strife]. Therein He was sanctified in their presence by bringing forth water for them, out of the rock, and it was there that they were attacked by the Amalekites. Therefore, Moshe described it in brief saying, ‘And there was no water for the people to drink,’ since it was the place which was recognized and known by this fact.”
Let this comparison between Victor Matthews and R. Moshe ben Nachman be a lesson to all of us. We must divorce ourselves from the notion that all we need is the Bible in one hand and the voice of the Holy Spirit in the other when we begin to read and exegete the text of Torah. The Newer Testament tells us we are to be diligent workman, rightly dividing the text; this indicates struggle or toil. We are 3,500 years removed from Moshe and the Giving of the Torah from Sinai. We have travelled thousands of miles and crossed a handful of cultures to get where we are now, and we emerged a significantly different people. This means we need assistance in interpreting the Text. For example, even the simplest of command, “you shall not kill,” must be interpreted for us by the traditions passed down from the Pharisees to the Rabbis. With their help, we learn the command refers to premeditated murder. We, generally, are not smart enough to outwit the Torah scholars who came before us. These gentlemen lived and breathed the text. They spent every open moment of their lives studying even the crowns on the letters. They played with the splitting of letters and juxtapositions of texts while we hold our heads trying to understand the simplest of phrases. How bold is our generation that we so easily dismiss their work and their kavanah.
Of the 42 campsites, we stayed at 14 in the first year prior to the spies being sent, and we stayed at eight in the 40th year, the year after Aaron’s death. Therefore, in the remaining 38 years, we sojourned in only 20 locations. Moreover, in one station, Kadesh, we camped for 19 years. This means in the 19 years that remain, we sojourned in 19 locations [an average of one year per campsite]. Another way to put it is as follows:
Station 1 thru 14 [Raamses thru Chatzerot] Year 01
Station 15 thru 32 [Ritmah thru Etzion Gever] [1 year/ea] Year 02-19
Station 33 [Kadesh] [19 years] Year 20-38
Station 34 [Hor Hahar where Aaron died] [1 year] Year 39
Station 35 thru 42 [Tzalmona thru the Plains of Moav] Year 40
This reminds me of the parent who pulls out the photo album and shows the children all the places they lived throughout their young lives – even the places they no longer recall.
At these sites, we were tried and purified. We were given many opportunities to choose our G-d over the base desires of humanity. Many of us suffered and some even died, but in the end, Hashem elevated those whose faith endured and they entered the Land.
A Roman nobleman asked R. Shimon ben Chalafta, “In how many days did G-d create the world?”
“In six,” he replied.
He asked, “What has he been doing since then?”
R Shimon said, “G-d is busy constructing ladders for the purpose of elevating some people and lowering others.”
Since our bodies are always in motion, from our heartbeat to the flickering neurons of thought, we can never truly be at rest. Either we are elevating ourselves toward Hashem, or we’re lowering ourselves away from him. Normally in a Torah service, we would all say, “chazak chakah venitchazek” because these two Torah portions close the book of Numbers, but since the Torah is not present, let me say, “May we all be strengthened as you climb the ladder provided by Hashem.”