Parasha Matot-Masei (Tribes-Journeys)
Numbers 30:2–36:13; Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4, 4:1–2; James 4:1–12
“Moses said to the heads of the tribes [matot] of Israel: ‘This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes [nadar] a vow [neder to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate [asar] himself by a pledge [isar], he must not break his word but must do everything he said.'” (Numbers 30:3)
Last week, in Parasha Pinchas, we read that God gave Pinchas (Phinehas) a pact of peace and everlasting priesthood in response to his zeal for the Lord.
In this week’s Parasha, Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes (matot) about the issue of vows.
The word for vow in Hebrew is ‘neder,’ which denotes a solemn promise to consecrate something to God and also, to do something in His service or honor.
Jacob (Yaacov) made this kind of vow when he promised to give back to God a tenth (tithe) of everything God gave to him, in exchange for God’s provision and protection on his journey (Genesis 28:20–22).
Vows, however, do not always arise from consecration. Quite often vows are uttered rashly in times of distress or desperation in an attempt to secure divine help or aid.
The challenge then is to remember and keep the vow when the trial has passed.
The reality is, of course, that there are times when we simply don’t keep the vow we have promised, despite our best intentions.
For that reason, Ecclesiastes advises that we not be hasty in making promises to God. It also advises us to be quick in our follow-through when we do go ahead and make a vow.
“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God…. When you make [nadar] a vow [neder] 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 5:2, 4–5)
For an example of a rash and foolish vow, we need look no further than Jephthah’s vow to thank God for a military victory by sacrificing when he returned home whatever came out of his house first to meet him. Much to his horror, it was his one and only daughter who first came out (Judges 11:30–39).
Rabbinic consensus provides for the very human tendency to utter vows recklessly.
The Rabbis contend that it’s better to break a foolish or dangerous vow than to persist in carrying it out.
Interestingly, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Biblical calendar, begins with a prayer called Kol Nidre (All Vows). Its purpose is to break any such vows made over the past year.
Kol Nidre arose during the Spanish Inquisition when many Jews were forced to make Christian vows in order to save their lives.
God takes vows seriously and so should we; however, we must also be aware and accept that there are exceptions when a vow must unfortunately be broken.
Related to a vow, but slightly different, is a bond called an isar. This is usually a negative vow – a self-imposed pledge to abstain from something that is normally permissible.
An example of this is the Nazarite vow – a pledge to abstain from consuming grape products such as wine and from cutting ones hair.
The Hebrew noun isar (bond) is closely related to the verb asar, which means to obligate or forbid.
These words also carry the connotation of being bound, chained, or imprisoned; for instance, a prisoner is an asir. From this we understand that we are bound by even voluntary choices to designate something permissible as forbidden (asur).
We see this in the life of the Apostle Shaul (Paul), when he joined four men taking a vow as proof that he maintained an observant Jewish lifestyle and faithfully kept the Torah (Acts 21:23–24).
Going Out As Champions
“Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 33:1)
In the Masei portion of this week’s Torah study, Moses recounts the 42 journeys and encampments that the Israelites made, beginning with Israel leaving Egypt while the Egyptians were still burying their dead, whom the God of Israel struck in the final plague upon Egypt (Numbers 33:3–4).
There was nothing secretive or humiliating about Israel’s exodus from Egypt; rather, it was a triumphant and public display of God’s victory over all the gods of Egypt.
The slaves that were once subjugated went out as champions, while their oppressors were left behind broken and defeated!
Friend, we too can look forward to such victories. When God delivers us from circumstances that have held us in bondage, we also go out champions.
“You will go out with joy and be led forth in peace….” (Isaiah 55:12)
Entering into the Promised Land
“No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.” (Isaiah 60:18)
When Israel arrived by the Jordan at Jericho, their wanderings had come to an end, so God gave Moses directives regarding their imminent entry into the Promised Land.
The very first command was to “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you…. Take possession of the land and settle it, for I have given you that land to possess. (Numbers 33:52–53)”
God warned Israel that there would be consequences if they failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land.
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain of them will be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.” (Numbers 33:55)
He also delineated Israel’s borders (Numbers 34:1–10). These border certainly contrast the borders that the nations of the world have in mind for Israel today.
“When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance will have these boundaries…” (Numbers 34:2)
Haftarah Matot-Masei (Prophetic Portion)
“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; see also Jeremiah 17:13)
Today’s haftarah portion is one of the few prophetic portions that don’t have a direct connection to the Parasha.
Instead, this portion is the second of three haftarot that are read between the fast on 17th of Tammuz, which marks the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in AD 70, and the fast on the 9th day of Av, which marks the day when both Temples were burned.
This period of mourning is called Bein HaMetzarim and literally means between the straits (Lamentations 1:3). The term is also a reference to labor and childbirth; when a woman is in full, active labor, she is said to be ‘Bein HaMetzarim.’
From this critical time, commonly called transition, the labor hopefully proceeds to the delivery of a healthy baby.
If things go badly, however, the consequences can be dire, leading even to the death of the mother and child.
This haftarah describes this transition point (Bein HaMetzarim) when Israel turned away from God and sought after idols. That sin and its consequences make our hearts heavy still today.
Israel’s forsaking of God led to her destruction on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), at which time both Holy Temples were destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into captivity.
According to tradition, on this exact same day, both Solomon’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and Herod’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, were destroyed on the 9th day of Av.
Of course, things didn’t have to end this way. Our transitions don’t have to lead to death and destruction; they can lead to birth and new life.
In this haftarah portion, God is called Makor Mayim Chayim—The Source of Living Water (Jeremiah 2:13; see also Jeremiah 17:13).
He calls out to us through the Prophet Jeremiah to come back to Him, the very source of life itself.
In the Brit Hadashah (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus) picks up this theme when He says in the Book of Yohannan (John), “I am the way, the truth, and THE LIFE.” (John 14:6)
He also proclaimed Himself the source of living water on the last day of the water pouring ceremony during the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles).
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures have said, streams of living water [mayim chayim] will flow from within him.” (John 7:37–39)
Yeshua was speaking of the Spirit of the Living God, and when we drink of these living waters, we not only find life, but we refresh the lives of others as that living water flows out from us.