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Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5777 — 07/22/2017

Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5777 — 07/22/2017

Matot: Bamidbar 30:2 – 32:42

Mas’ei: Bamidbar 33:1 – 34:29

Our parashah contains a passage which delineates the boundaries of the Land of Israel – the Land in which our nation’s destiny and mission are to be realized. These boundaries serve as a physical demarcation between “our” Land and the lands of others, and they also demarcate the boundaries within which all the agricultural mitzvot are obligatory. Thus, it is a spiritual boundary as well as a political one. Perhaps this is not surprising – since the boundaries are specified in our eternal Torah, we would expect that their significance transcends ephemeral political considerations.

Ramchal emphasizes the spiritual nature of the boundary:

In the spiritual realms we find kedusha and tumah and a boundary separating them to prevent tumah from entering the realm of kedusha. Similarly, Eretz Yisrael is a place of kedusha and the areas outside the borders of Eretz Yisrael represent tumah – there was a necessity to set up boundaries there as well. These “boundaries” are spiritual aspects of Hashem’s attribute of strength used to prevent tumah from encroaching on the kedusha.

He continues:

These spiritual lights have the power to deflect tumah and safeguard kedusha. Although they act as a boundary against infiltration of tumah, they do not prevent the kedusha contained within these borders from spreading at the appropriate time. In the future the borders of Eretz Yisrael will be extended as the kedusha will totally overpower tumah and spread beyond these borders.

A physicist reading these quotes will probably have two thoughts: open systems vs closed systems and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and semi-permeable membranes.

Allow me to explain.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the law of entropy. It states that in a closed system, entropy, or lack of structure, increases. This can be seen as an increase in tumah, which we have been theorizing is a sign of, or the force of, disintegration or decay. Our first quote appears to be telling us that the Land of Israel is a small island of growth and evolution in a vast sea of decay and disintegration, and the only way to maintain its own integrity is by having unassailable boundaries.

The second quote actually turns the first on its head. It describes the boundary as being not solid, but permeable only to kedusha. The kedusha of Eretz Yisrael can get out, but the tumah of the rest of the world cannot get in. This is called a semipermeable membrane – the filter in your reverse-osmosis water purifier is of this type. Now a semipermeable membrane, which lets certain molecules through, but retains others behind it, actually has the effect of decreasing entropy – after some time the concentration of the retained molecule is higher on one side of the membrane than on the other, relative to the molecule that is allowed through.

Perhaps the analogy is breaking down because we are thinking of tumah and kedusha as things, rather than as states. If we think of kedusha as a state of greater integration, for example, then we can well conceive of a kind of ordering “field effect” which goes beyond the boundaries that contain the kedusha and push back the tumah, or entropy. Thus we find, for example, that certain of the agricultural laws that technically apply only within Eretz Yisrael (e.g. tithing of agricultural produce), were extended Rabbinically to certain of the surrounding areas (in what is now Syria, or what used to be Syria).

These mitzvot at once reflect the increased kedusha of the nearby lands, and serve as a mechanism to increase that kedusha by having the inhabitants perform action in accordance with Gd’s Will. In other words, there is apparently a kind of tipping point in the degree of orderliness in an environment, beyond which further growth of orderliness is supported and sustained. But if one goes far enough away from the source of kedusha, the tumah is too strong, and we cannot sustain the full regimen of mitzvot. In fact, since the destruction of the Temple and the removal of its purifying and ordering influence, only some 277 of the 613 mitzvot can be performed – fewer than half!

I might also point out that the Rabbis decreed that all lands outside of Eretz Yisrael are considered tamei. Ostensibly this is because in other places people are not careful to mark the graves of their dead, so people may acquire tumah by accidentally walking over an unmarked grave. I think the subtext here is that outside of Eretz Yisrael there is an inherent level of entropy, disorderliness, that cannot really be overcome, except perhaps in isolated environments (such as a synagogue) where there is intense focus on kedusha.

In the Messianic age however, “the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael will expand” and carry the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael with it. Our mission is to prepare the way by creating pockets of order and harmony as best we can in whatever environment we find ourselves, and no matter what challenges we face from the forces of tumah. We can do this best by contacting the field of perfect order deep within ourselves, and bringing that value into our daily lives.

And with this, my dear readers, we must bid Ramchal a fond farewell. When I began this year’s writing, the first two books of Ramchal’s Torah commentary had been published, the third was at the printer, and the fourth, Bamidbar, was scheduled to appear shortly. I am writing this during the week of Shabbat Bamidbar (late May) but alas, Sefer Devarim is not yet on the horizon. So, after conferring with my esteemed editor, I have agreed to wing it through the last Book of Torah. Drawing on the commentaries I have used in the past and others that I’ve merely filed away, and the flights of my own fevered imagination, I will try to come up with something worthwhile each week. I will not try to continue in Ramchal’s vein, because I can barely understand his insights when they are right in front of me, let alone come up with something even remotely similar on my own. So, to paraphrase the words of a President who had the intelligence and good grace to resign from office before he got thrown out, “You won’t have Ramchal to kick around any more.” You will, however, have me, and I’m a much easier target.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Matot – Masei

Parshah Matot begins with Moses declaring that Gd has said whatever we vow to Gd to do or to refrain from doing, we must do or refrain from; the exceptions are a daughter’s vow may be annulled by her father and a wife’s by her husband at the time of hearing the vow. Rashi adds a third and fourth source of annulment, based on the fact that Moses spoke these word to the princes and not to all Israel: a single expert may annul (The Lubavitcher Rebbe says “a sage”) or three laymen.

I found the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discussion particularly helpful: he presented the view that we need to bind ourself to Gd as the Father and let nothing stand between us and His Will – knowing it and doing it. Similarly, we need to betroth ourself to Gd and do his will so the bondage of the world is annulled and we rise to the state of marriage to Gd, in Oneness, with the “children” of our marriage being our good deeds

We must rise to the level of marriage with Gd in which with Gd’s help we annul the bonds that keep us and our world in illusion, concealing Gd’s Presence:

“nullifying in himself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide G‑d’s presence from man. And this power is “retroactive,” that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space. Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so he, with the help of Gd, releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of Gd.

Our Tradition helps us move in this direction.

From last week:

Why did Gd choose Joshua to lead to and in the Promised Land even though Joshua was less than Moses?

The same principle that the Lubavitcher Rebbe uses in reference to annulment of vows by father or betrothed or husband, applies here:

Neither Moses nor Joshua was the real leader, the real shepherd: Gd is the Leader, the Shepherd.

As David puts it in Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want; he leadeth me to lie down in green pastures, besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”

And in Joshuah I:5-9, Gd puts it this way to Joshuah:

“5. No man shall stand up before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so shall I be with you. I will not weaken My grasp on you nor will I abandon you.

הלֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ לְפָנֶיךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיִיתִי עִם מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ לֹא אַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא אֶעֶזְבֶךָּ:

6. Be strong and have courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land that I have sworn to their ancestors to give to them.

וחֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תַּנְחִיל אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבוֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם:

7. Just be strong and very courageous to observe and do in accordance with all of the Torah that Moses My servant has commanded you. Do not stray therefrom right or left, in order that you succeed wherever you go.

זרַק חֲזַק וֶאֱמַץ מְאֹד לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכָל הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ מֹשֶׁה עַבְדִּי אַל תָּסוּר מִמֶּנּוּ יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול לְמַעַן תַּשְׂכִּיל בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ:

8. This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.

חלֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשֹוֹת כְּכָל הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל:

9. Did I not command you, be strong and have courage, do not fear and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your Gd is with you wherever you go.”


So Gd guides Joshuah as he guided Moses and what Joshuah does is Gd’s will – not less than Moses’ actions: perfect!

Baruch HaShem