Parasha Matot-Masei (Tribes – Journeys): Vows, Oaths, Will of God and Wilderness experience

 Matot – Masei (Tribes – Journeys) מַּטּוֹת-מַסְעֵי

Numbers 30:2–36:13; Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4, 4:1–2; Matthew 23:1–25:46

Parashah Name  – 42 Matot, מַּטּוֹת

Parashah Name  – 42 Masei,מַסְעֵי

Last week, in Parasha Pinchas, God instructed Moses regarding dividing the Land by lottery among the tribes of Israel.  The five daughters of Tzelafchad also successfully petitioned Moses for the portion of the land belonging to their father, who had died without male heirs.

In this Parasha (Torah portion), Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes (matot) about the issue of vows.  In Hebrew, the word is neder (נדר ), and the English language really has no equivalent word.  This Hebrew word denotes a solemn promise to consecrate something to God or to do something in His service or honor.

Jacob (Yaacov) made such a vow to God when he promised to give back to God a tenth (tithe) of anything God gives to him in exchange for God’s provision and protection on his journey. 

“Then Jacob made a vow [neder], saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house.  And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.’”  (Genesis 28:20–22)

This Torah portion reminds us that we must be careful about making promises because God expects us to keep our word.  (Numbers 30:2)

The Bible insists that we keep our word even when it hurts (when it is no longer convenient or pleasant).  The person who does so is the one who may abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill!

“Lord, who may abide in your tabernacle?  Who may dwell in Your holy hill?  He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness…  He who swears [vows, promises] to his own hurt and does not change.”  (Psalm 15:4) 

Because of the weight and sanctity of a vow, and the serious consequences for not keeping one, observant Jews can be heard saying bli neder (without a vow) to qualify a commitment, in the event that the speaker finds him or herself unable to fulfill it.

In Judaism, words are considered extremely important.  After all, the whole world was created through words.

As Believers, we should have an impeccable reputation as people of integrity—as people who can be trusted to keep our word.  Yeshua said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  (Matthew 5:37)

Of course, Yeshua was not disallowing vows.  Yeshua’s disciples and the apostles continued making various vows, even after He had ascended to Heaven; for instance, in Acts 18:18, Paul shaved his head in connection with a Nazirite vow he had taken.

Rather, Yeshua’s statement is meant to be a guide to holy speech.  We shouldn’t be led into making unnecessary vows for the sake of bringing a sense of importance or power to our words, or to reassure someone that we mean what we say.

His statement is entirely in keeping with Judaism’s view that vows are not to be entered into lightly, and that it is better not to make one than make one and not fulfill it.

“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5)

Waging War With Wise Counsel

“Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance.”  (Proverbs 20:18)

While the vow emphasizes the power and importance of the words that we speak, chapter 31 of Numbers perhaps emphasizes the power of the words we listen to.

In this chapter, God commands Moses to execute His vengeance against the Midianites for conspiring to destroy Israel through enticing them to sin.

“‘Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites.  Afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.’  So Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.  You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.’”  (Numbers 31:1–4)

Because of the advice of Balaam the sorcerer, who helped Balak plot Israel’s moral downfall, Israel fell into sin with Midianite women and a plague swept through the camp killing many thousands.

“Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.”  (Numbers 31:16)

In the end, the Lord took vengeance, and the Israelites slew Balaam with a sword in this war with Midian.

“They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian.  And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.”  (Numbers 31:8)

From this we can understand that God is mindful of who we are listening to!

All kinds of voices are clamoring to give us advice on what we should do next and how we should do it; however, when making plans, seeking guidance, or in the midst of any kind of battle, we so desperately need wise counsel.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”  (Proverbs 15:22)

“‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued.  ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.’”  (Mark 4:24)

We often search for advice, intuitively understanding that there are so many variables outside our control.  Which way should we go?  To whom should we listen?  Who knows the inside track so we can avoid trouble around the next turn?

Still, the wrong advice can bring a person down quickly!  Balaam’s counsel brought destruction not only upon all Israel, but upon Midian and himself.  Who are we listening to?

Many people today are taking advice and seeking guidance from ungodly counselors like Balaam—psychics and fortune tellers.  Some of these counselors not only give worldly advice that is contrary to Scripture, but they might have even worse problems than the ones in our own lives!  As well, many people in the world today seek for advice by checking their horoscope, using tarot cards, or by other occult means.

Scripture, however, advises us against taking counsel from the ungodly:

“Blessed is the man [or woman] who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly…. but his delight is in the Torah of Adonai, and in His Torah he mediates day and night.”  (Psalm 1:1–2)

Praise God for wise counsel from Spirit-filled people who hear from the Lord.  But while we can receive wise counsel from Godly people, and there is safety in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14), we must first bring every issue to the Lord.

We are so blessed to have the Torah and Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) as our counselor and guide: 

“For this God is our God forever and ever:  He will be our guide even unto death.”  (Psalm 48:14)

Entering into the Promised Land

“And they said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession.  Do not take us across the Jordan.’”  (Numbers 32:5)

So far, we have examined the attention that we must give to the words we speak and the words we listen to.

Chapter 32 of Numbers seems to emphasize listening patiently to the requests of others, leaving room for real communication.

As it came near the time to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land of promise, two of the tribes, Gad and Reuben, decided that they preferred the land of Gilead and asked for permission to settle on the east side of the Jordan, rather than cross over with the rest of the tribes of Israel.

This request provoked Moses to anger and he accused them of cowardice and betrayal:

“But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, ‘Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?’”  (Numbers 32:6)

As Israelis face brutal ongoing terrorist attacks and are hammered by bombs from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, this is a question that some Israelis might want to ask their brethren who remain in relative comfort and prosperity in the nations of the world.

Still, we wonder, why did the simple request of Gad and Reuben spark such a bitter outburst of anger in Moses?

This request reminded him of a painful incident from his past experience with the Israelites.  He remembered that the bad report of 10 of the 12 spies discouraged the people so much that they wanted to go back to Egypt instead of going in to possess the land.  Moses was concerned that there might be a repeat, resulting in more wilderness wandering.

He wanted to circumvent anything that would prevent the people from entering the Promised Land.

“Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the LORD has given them?  Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land.”  (Numbers 32:7–8) 

Still, his anger was premature.  Additional discussion made it clear that this was not their intent.  Reuben and Gad pledged their support and solidarity with the other tribes of Israel before settling in the lands of Gilead.

In our interactions with people, we too must be careful that we don’t jump to conclusions or simply react because of a previous negative experience.  We should be careful to hear people out instead of making rash judgments on their motivations or projecting possible outcomes or scenarios before we have heard all the facts. 

Reuben and Gad’s pledge and concern for the interests and welfare of the entire nation of Israel reveals something important for Believers.

As members of the Body of Messiah, we are connected.  If one part of the Body hurts or is suffering, the whole body feels the pain.  Because we are joined together, we must not be selfishly looking after only our own best interests.  We must be mindful of the needs and well-being of the whole community of Believers, as well as for Israel.

“Let each of you look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:4)

This week’s Scripture portion, which is often combined with Matot in the Torah reading cycle, describes the entire travelogue of the children of Israel.  Moses chronicled all of their stops and starts along the way since Israel’s exit from Egypt.

“Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD”  (Numbers 33:2)

What was the purpose for Moses chronicling in such a precise fashion, the entire Israelite desert itinerary of 42 journeys?  It may even seem dull, monotonous and repetitive, since each destination is mentioned twice:

“So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth.  And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness.  And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol.…”  (Numbers 33:5–7)

On and on continues the list of places, with a length of stay from less than 24 hours to days, months, and even years.

In this Parasha, Moses is showing us that life is not simply a final destination, but a succession of destinations—each bringing us toward a progressive fulfillment of our destiny.  In other words, life is not only about the end goal; rather, it is more about the journey that takes place along the way.

Jewish history has always been one of movement, as we travel our long and winding road back to redemption.

That is why, perhaps, the Jewish People have been called the “Wandering Jews,” since we have been exiled into the nations for two millennia, marked by persecutions that led to more forced wanderings.

However, in this generation, the Jewish People are coming back to the Land, permanently:

“I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the LORD your God.”  (Amos 9:15)

The question we may ask ourselves about our own personal journey is whether or not we are moving like a Jonah, trying to escape from God’s plan for our lives—or are we following the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh)?

Since each of us is on a spiritual journey in our walk with Adonai, it is helpful to recount the path we’ve taken, with all its twists and turns, as Moses did with the children of Israel.

Why is this important?  It is because too often memory fades and we forget what we were certain we would always remember.  We need to remember our journeys and transitions so that we see a broader view of God’s plan and interventions in our lives.

Through reflecting on our life experiences, we can grow in faith as we see how God intervened.  We can also grow in wisdom as we understand how we stumbled and got lost.

Also, if we don’t chronicle our journey, then future generations will not have the chance to gain wisdom from and build on our journeys.  Instead, they will likely repeat our same wanderings.

For these very reasons, every year the Jewish People recount the Exodus journey during the Passover Seder meal.

It is also why a great many people, especially in their latter years, choose to create personal memoirs, either written or in video format.

Haftarah Masei: Telata De’puranuta (The Three of Affliction)

This week’s Haftarah reading is one of the few prophetic portions that correspond to the Biblical calendar, instead of the Torah portion itself.  It is also one of three portions read before the 9th of the Jewish month of Av (Tisha B’av)—August 5 of this year.

Three special Shabbats fall between Shiba Asar B’Tamuz (Seventeenth of Tammuz), a fast day that recalls when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and Tisha B’Av, which remembers the destruction of the Temple.

The Haftarot for these three weeks are called Telata D’puranuta—The Three of Affliction.

This week’s prophetic reading falls in the middle of the three.  In it, the prophet Jeremiah rebukes the people, warning them that as a consequence for their sins, Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people sent into Babylonian exile.

This three-week period of affliction is also called Bein HaMitzarim, which literally means between the straits.

This term is also a reference to labor and childbirth.  When a woman is in full, active labor she is said to be “bein hamitzarim.”

This is a critical time, also called a transition, when the labor is hopefully going to proceed to the delivery of a healthy baby.  If things go badly, however, it can lead to dire consequences and even death for either the mother, the child, or both.

This Haftarah describes the transition point, bein hamitzarim, when Israel had the opportunity to repent from turning away from God and seeking after idols.

Israel’s denial and forsaking of God led to her destruction on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’av).  But it didn’t only happen once on this day.  It happened twice.

On this day, because of sin, both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed and the people were sent into captivity.

However, our own transitions in life don’t have to lead to death and destruction; they can lead to the birth of a new life through the Source of Life.

Living Water—the Anecdote for Affliction

A name for God in this Haftarah is The Fountain of Living Water (Makor Mayim Chayim).  Through the prophet Jeremiah, God calls His people to recall how they walked away from their Source of Life.

“My people have committed two sins:  They have forsaken Me, the Spring of Living Water [Makor Mayim Chayim], and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13)

Yeshua (Jesus), in effect, made a similar call when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  (John 14:6)

In fact, on the last day of the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), Yeshua stood up and boldly proclaimed Himself to be the Source of Living Water:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.  But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive…”  (John 7:37–39)

When we thirst for more of God, He gives us His Ruach HaKodesh, which is the only kind of water that sustains eternal life.

When we drink of His Fountain of Living Waters, not only are we refreshed, but His living water flows out of us to refresh the lives of others.

Turning Points on the Journey

In our journey through life, we may come to many turning points or transitions—times when we are truly bein hamitzarim (between the straits).  As with labor and childbirth, the pain can feel excruciating, but these times do not necessarily have to end in death.

Yeshua, the Fountain of Living Waters, has promised that when we are between the straits, we can come to Him for relief:  “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

If we will turn to the Fountain of Living Waters (Makor Mayim Chayim) during our turbulent times, like the Israelites did during their 40 years of wandering, we too can receive a whole new life with an eternal inheritance and responsibilities in the Kingdom of God:

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. … to give drink to My people, My chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”  (Isaiah 43:18–21)

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