Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with Moses teaching the laws about oaths and vows and how they may be annulled. The Israelites then go to war against Midian for the incident at Baal Pe’or in which the Midianites attempted to corrupt the Israelites by seducing them into idolatry. After the Israelites defeat the Midianites, the Torah gives a detailed account of the war spoils and how they were allocated amongst the people, the warriors, the Levites and the high priest. The tribes of Reuven and Gad (later joined by half of the tribe of Menasheh) ask Moses for permission to remain in the good pasture lands east of the Jordan rather than crossing over with the rest of the tribes. Moses is initially angered by the request, but then agrees on the condition that they not abandon the other tribes when in need of military assistance.
The forty-two journeys and encampments of Israel are listed, from the Exodus all the way to their present position on the banks of the Jordan river. The boundaries of the Promised Land are given, and cities of refuge are designated as havens and places of exile for those who accidentally kill another person and are seeking protection from retribution... The daughters of Tzelafhad marry within their own tribe of Menasheh, so that the estate which they inherit from their father should not pass to the province of another tribe.
Torah of Awakening
אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיי אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ
לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃
If a person vows a vow to the Divine or swears an oath to forbid something to one’s soul, they shall not empty their word; everything that comes from their mouth, so shall they do…
BaMidbar (Numbers) 30:3, Parshat Matot
One Friday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov traveled with his disciples to a certain far-off village, and led them to a little broken down shack of a house. He knocked, and when a woman opened the door and saw they were travelers, she warmly greeted them. “Won’t you stay for Shabbos? My husband and I would love to have you,” she asked.
The Baal Shem Tov immediately accepted. The disciples were surprised – why were they bothering this poor family who obviously had hardly enough for themselves? At Shabbos dinner, when they came to the motzi, the blessing over the challah, the challah cover was removed to reveal a tiny crust of moldy bread. After the blessing, the Baal Shem grabbed the tiny crust and gobbled it down himself. The disciples were terribly embarrassed. Next, a little bit of dried fish was brought out for dinner. Again, the Baal Shem grabbed it and gobbled it down, not allowing anyone else even a taste. For the rest of Shabbos, the Baal Shem did similar things, while the disciples endured his actions in silent agony.
After Shabbos was over and they set off to return home, they could restrain themselves no longer: “How could you behave that way? What is the matter with you??” The Baal Shem was just silent. A year later, the Baal Shem Tov brought those same disciples back to the same little village where they had visited the poor family the year before. But, when they arrived, there was a palatial mansion in the place where the little shack once stood! The Baal Shem Tov explained:
“The holy couple whose home we visited last year was blessed with everything they needed to be extremely successful in business, but they were so full of faith, that they chose to rely only on God’s grace and wouldn’t do anything to help themselves. So, while they prayed passionately for their livelihood, they refused to take any steps on their own toward it improving it. When we visited last year, that crust of bread and bit of fish were enough to keep them trapped in their passivity. All I needed to do was take away that last bit of sustenance, so that they would be pushed over the edge and forced to take some action. That’s what they did, and just look at them now!”
Desperation can be a powerful motivator. In the case of spirituality, when we are feeling good and things are going well, there is a tendency to allow our practice to become weak or even drop away completely. But when disturbance comes and we are face to face with our own spiritual immaturity, the desperation can force us to return more powerfully to the Path. But is it possible to keep that seriousness of intention and commitment even when things are going well?
כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃ – Everything that comes from their mouth, so shall they do… Verbally affirming our intentions in the form of a vow is a way of defending ourselves against the sneaky klippa of complacency. Even when we are moved to desperation and our intentions for the Path become clear and powerful, that doesn’t mean we will continue to be connected to that intention, especially if the intention goes against longtime habits. For that, we need to create a new pattern in our nervous systems so that the intention remains present with us. How to do it?
The key is write your intention down and repeat it often. Then, when the flow of life is easy and you would tend to become lax you’re your practice, you will be solid as a rock; if your intention is clear to yourself, nothing can shake you. This is the Path of Netzakh, the sefirah of carrying out an intention by steadily working toward a goal over long periods of time. But, you might ask, isn’t attaching ourselves to some goal a function of ego? Isn’t spirituality about surrender, not holding on to anything?
It’s true – commitment to a particular goal alone can often be a function of ego. The hallmark of ego is that it seeks control; that’s why intention and commitment (Netzakh) must be balanced by humility and gratitude (Hod) and this is the basic function of prayer. In the story, the couple had lots of Hod, but not enough Netzakh; the key is balancing them.
When we take an action, the action has some intention behind it; there is always some goal attached which motivates the action, whether we are aware of it or not, even if the goal is simply to create a certain feeling. The purpose of praying for things, on the other hand, is not merely to bring about the thing we pray for; it is not to control God or to “manifest our desires,” but rather to make our desires transparent, not-fixed, not-egoic. The essence of prayer is the recognition that we are not in control; we don’t even control our own thoughts. We pray only because the words have arisen in our mouths to pray – on this level, there is no separate “me,” there is only God – unfolding in every form and in every happening.
At the same time, if your prayer makes you passive so that you simply wait for God to act, you’ve make a false split between you and God. You assume that “God” is one thing and you are another. But there is One Reality. Commit and act, but know that it is not you who acts. Pray, but know that God prays through you. In this week of Shabbat Mattot, the Sabbath of Tribes, may we support each other in manifesting our visions and goals. May we recognize that commitment to both action and prayer are two sides of the Whole – Netzakh and Hod, the passive and the active sides of the Tree, as One.
Read past teachings on Matot HERE.
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