By Mike Fenster
In Mattot and Masei, we read of the final episodes in the 39 years of the Israelites’ wandering since the 12 spies returned from Canaan, up until this new generation who stand on the plain of Moab, looking across the River Jordan, contemplating an uncertain future. They will no longer be supported by God with fresh water, manna, quails and the pillars of fire and smoke by night and by day. They will have to support themselves; rely on their own agriculture, and their own soldiers. God will still support them, but as independent adults, not as the dependent children they had been while in Sinai. The frightening prospect of having to cope with the future was too much for the Israelites 39 years earlier – they believed the stories told by the ten spies, were afraid to leave that divine support system that provided for their every need and elected not to proceed to Canaan. Only this new, braver generation could rise to the challenge that God laid out.
And what a challenge! In Chapter 34 God describes the boundaries of the vast land, up beyond Damascus, inhabited by numerous tribes, all needing to be conquered. As a first step, Moses orders a genocidal war against the Midianites. Moses appoints others to fight this war – they will be led by the priest–zealot Pinchas, hero of last week’s sidrah. The Talmud [Baba Kamah 92b] quotes the proverb ‘Do not throw a stone into the well from which you drank’ as an explanation of why Moses could not turn the Nile to blood – the river had saved him in his infancy, and so Aaron enacted the miracle of the first plague. And because Moses had married a Midianite and been supported by them, similar logic now requires that he cannot lead the war against them.
Many more military campaigns would be needed if Canaan was to be secured for the Israelites, and this caused a problem for the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The lands on the east of the Jordan were very suitable for their cattle, and they petitioned Moses and the community to be allowed to settle there. Moses is, to say the least, not happy: ‘you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers [who failed to trust in God 39 years ago]. If you split the people, God will abandon you all and you will bring calamity on this people’. But they negotiate, and agree a settlement whereby the Trans-Jordan union can be maintained. The Reubenite and Gadite warriors will accompany the rest of the people over the Jordan, help them to fight their wars and only then return across the Jordan. In the final paragraphs of Ma’asei, new laws are set out that are needed for this new post-wilderness phase. There is criminal law – establishing cities of refuge to which someone who has committed manslaughter can flee to receive a fair trial – and civil law; the judgement in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad is a precedent to ensure that inherited property remains within the tribe.
The future for this new nation is being laid out here. The generation whose parents were condemned to die for believing the untruths of the spies will have to take the nation forward, maintaining the tribal order, enacting new laws and being weaned off their reliance on God’s everyday miracles to become a nation that can earn God’s blessings and avoid God’s curses.
Mike Fenster is a longstanding member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.