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Parashat Matot-Masei 5772 – 07/18/2012

Parashat Matot-Masei

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

You shall possess the Land and dwell in it, for to you have I given the Land to possess it (33:53) In my opinion this constitutes a positive commandment: Gd is commanding the people that they should settle in the Land and take possession of it, for He gave it to them and they should not spurn the heritage of Gd. (Ramban ad loc)

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, those of them whom you leave shall be pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides… (33:55)

The hope of 2000 years – to live a free people in our Land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem (Hatikva)

But because of our sins we were exiled from our Land and distanced from our soil. (Festival Musaf Amida)

The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise (Bava Basra 158b)

The last two parshiyot of Sefer BaMidbar (Book of Numbers) have to do with the coming conquest and division of the Land of Israel, the Land promised to the Jewish people from the days of the Patriarchs. Its boundaries are delineated and the method for its division amongst the tribes is laid out. Although both of these passages have some serious ambiguities in our day (e.g. we don’t know where a number of the boundary markers are any more – see the maps in the Artscroll Chumash for an idea of how far apart the various opinions can be), they were presumably much clearer at the time, and in any event there was no shortage of prophets to clarify any remaining questions.

We are also informed of two major mitzvot having to do with the Land. We are to possess it and to live in it, which would include developing it so that it should be prosperous. Further, we are to drive out the previous inhabitants of the Land, lest they turn us aside from our spiritual path. The first mitzvah we performed. The second, not so much, and as Gd predicted, those of the Canaanite peoples that were not driven out indeed caused Israel to go astray after their depraved customs, leading, eventually, to our own exile.

We have discussed recently that the Land of Israel has special qualities that make it uniquely suited to the people of Israel, to carry out our mission. That mission is to bring the entire world to the knowledge of Gd. Now Gd is infinite and is ready, willing and able to bestow infinite benefits on us; in return Gd requires of us only that we recognize Him as the source of these benefits. The “gods” of the Canaanites, on the other hand, were incapable of anything, and demanded their adherents sacrifice their children. The question is, why were the Canaanites able to pull us down? Why, on the other hand, were we not able to uplift and purify them? Is not a connection to the infinite source of all good in creation inherently and incomparably superior to worthless figures of wood and stone? How is it that our connection to Gd was weakened by the temptations of idolatry, but their connection to their idols was not weakened at all by our purity?

I think the whole “trouble” with Gd is precisely that He is infinite and unbounded. Since Gd has no boundaries, there’s nothing concrete to grab on to with our senses; in fact even our minds cannot conceive Gd’s infinite majesty. This was a problem even for the generation of the Exodus, who witnessed Gd’s miracles at first hand, in Egypt, at the Sea, and most directly at Mt. Sinai, to the point where our Sages tell us that even a servant-girl at the Sea had a clearer vision of Gd than did the prophet Ezekiel. Yet even this fortunate group descended into idolatry a mere 40 days after the revelation at Mt. Sinai. And even if we want to say that the sin of the golden calf was precipitated by the “mixed multitude” (erev rav) that left Egypt with the Israelites, we come back to the same question – why was the experience at Mt. Sinai not sufficient to uplift the erev rav to sublime heights of purity, rather than their being able to drag us down to the depths of idolatry?!

Perhaps the answer is something like this. Gd is infinite, but His creation contains finite creatures. The purpose behind this creation is for the finite creatures to become reintegrated with their source in Gd, thus creating, as it were, something even bigger than Gd’s original Unity prior to creation. For this reintegration to be anything more than some uninteresting, mechanical phenomenon, it had to occur on the basis of the free will choices of some of Gd’s creatures – namely, human beings. But the existence of free will necessarily entails the possibility of wrong, life-damaging choices’ being made, choices that take us in the direction of dis-integration, rather than integration. It is only when an individual’s awareness is completely expanded to its infinite value, or, in Chassidic parlance, when the individual has become nullified (bitul hayesh) and the mind cleaves to Gd completely (devekut), that sin is impossible. Any slight impurity means that our individual desires and agendas can interfere with our ability to behave properly. Just as there is an infinite difference between the infinite and the finite, there appears to be an infinite difference between the pure and the even slightly impure. And just as a slight deviation in the path of a rocket at the beginning of its flight can lead to a disastrous miss at the destination, so any slight impurity in our awareness can lead to disastrous errors in our thinking and behavior – on the order of the golden calf, or of idolatry in our holy Land.

I think this is why Gd was so insistent that we drive out the inhabitants of the Land. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, after 40 years of listening to us kvetch and moan, Gd knew full well that we had not yet attained the level of purity that would give us the strength to resist the blandishments of a “sophisticated” alien culture, and that the small deviations here and there that we would make out of weakness, would become magnified over time until the whole structure of our individual lives and our communal life would simply fall apart, as we know actually happened: we are now in the “three weeks” – the period of mourning that began with the fast of 17 Tammuz, which commemorates the first breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and will end next week with the fast of Tisha B’Av, in which we mourn the destruction of our Holy Temples, may it be rebuilt speedily in our day.

And lest we think that this warning only applies to “long ago in a galaxy far away,” consider our existence today in what should appear to us as an alien culture. While it is true that many of the ideals upon which our country was founded come from our own prophetic tradition, the society we have created is far, far from being ideal. Rather than focusing our priorities on the physical and spiritual health and well-being of our people, we are focused on amassing material goods, to the point that our entire social and governmental structures have been, or are at risk of, being corrupted. If we, as Jews, who should be dedicated to the highest ideal of making Gd’s Name manifest throughout creation, do not feel that we are involved in something quite alien to our essence, then we are pretty far gone indeed. We need to throw out some of the inhabitants of our minds, that is, the entrenched ways of thinking and looking at the cosmos, that are nothing more than idolatry, serving false gods of gold and silver, wood and stone (or silicon). We are fortunate that now we can, again, physically live in the Land, and that Jewish sovereignty has been restored to it. But even if we are unable to live there, we absolutely must purify our own internal landscape of all the impure elements and forces that cause us to stray from our individual and our collective truth. The alternative is continued exile from Gd and continued enslavement to the forces of nature and the latest political and social fads and fashions. It should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 3

Be wary of the government, for they only draw a person close for their own purposes. As long as they can benefit from him they appear to be his friends, but they don’t stand by him in his hour of need. R. Lau points out that the word for government used here (and in Mishnah 1:10) is reshut, which refers to a lawless, illegitimate government – in this case the Roman empire (the original “evil empire”). Of course these Mishnayot were written when the Land was under foreign domination, which, as we say in the Festival Musaf prayer quoted above, was caused by our sins. In this case it is clear that there are many sound, practical reasons to be wary of the regime and its minions. But even in the case discussed in our parashah, we need to be careful of coming in too close contact with peoples and ways of thinking and living that will be inimical to our spiritual growth and our national purpose. Even when we are self-governing we need to be careful, lest we get into the situation famously described by Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”