Parashat Matot covers three main subjects: the laws of vows and oaths, the war against Midian, and the settlement of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.

The second and third of these three fit well into the historical flow of the Torah. The war against Midian is the third and final act in the drama of Israel’s confrontation with the Moab-Midian alliance whose story began in parashat Balak. The settlement of the two tribes of Reuben and Gad is the next phase of the conquest of the Land of Israel, begun at the end of parashat Chukat and continuing through the Book of Joshua and beyond.

What, then, of the laws of vows and oaths? Like the other legal passages of the Torah, we would expect to find these laws in Exodus or Leviticus. So why are they in fact here? It must be that these laws have a particular relevance to the subject of conquering and settling the Land of Israel. This will be clear when we review the events that preceded this parashah and which lead into it, as follows.

As we explained previously, the Jewish people’s slide into the idolatry of Pe’or and their harlotry with the Moabite-Midianite women actually began as a misunderstanding of the way they were meant to be involved in the physical world. They knew that their parents’ generation had been sentenced to live in the desert for forty years (after the incident of the spies) because they had shunned the challenges of such involvement. Standing at the threshold of the Promised Land, they were poised to accept this challenge and had resolved not to repeat their parents’ errors; they were ready to attack the materiality of the physical world and infuse it with God-consciousness.

However, their impetuous enthusiasm led them to err, and they overlooked the need to be cautious. As Eve had done with the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they fell into the trap of overestimating their holiness and thinking that their sublime spiritual consciousness and zeal made them invincible and immune to the machinations of evil. They knew that the purpose of life is to make all of reality into a home for God, and they had learned from Jethro’s conversion and Balaam’s prophecies that in order for this to happen, even the lowest, most anti-holy elements of reality must be elevated into holiness. Thus, they reasoned that they, too, must experience these dangerous but powerful energies of lust and unholy spirituality—in order, of course, to elevate them back to their source in holiness.

But of course, they were wrong. If one is to throw caution to the wind and risk everything, it should be in the opposite direction, to combat evil, as Pinchas graphically demonstrated. Although we should not shun the challenge of engaging the materiality of this world directly, we must be duly aware of its potential to divert us and corrupt our intentions. Hence the pertinence of the laws of vows and oaths: through these laws a person can set up boundaries for himself where he feels they are needed, as we will explain further on.

The next subject of this parashah, the war with Midian, can now be seen as a logical follow-through from the laws of vows and oaths. Those laws are the spiritual correction of the error of Pe’or, and the battle with Midian is the effort to uproot the source of this error.

The settlement of the tribes of Reuben and Gad is also a development of the same theme. These tribes wished to settle in the territory that Moses had conquered from Sichon and Og, on the east side of the Jordan River. God did not intend the Jews to settle this land at this point in history. These tribes reasoned, however, that the holiness of the Land of Israel proper was greater than the land outside its boundaries; therefore, it was crucial to elevate the unholy land as well. Their argument was therefore a variation on the same theme as before. This time, however, they were partially right, as Moses saw. Their understanding is an important lesson for us regarding our relationship to the physical world.

All three subjects of parashat Matot, then, are relevant to the impending entry into the Land of Israel. On the personal level as well, they are relevant to each of us individually in our encounter with the material world and to our generation collectively, standing as we are on the threshold of the messianic Redemption.

This explains how the name of the parashah, Matot, can be justifiably used as the name for the entire parashah. The word itself means “tribes,” but there are two words used in the Torah for “tribe,” the other one being shevet. Interestingly, both synonyms for “tribe” are also synonyms for “tree branch.” Just as branches stem from a tree trunk, a “tribe” is a branch or division of the people rooted in its common ancestor (in this case, Jacob).

The difference between the two synonyms is that while shevet refers to a soft, pliable twig, mateh (the singular of matot) refers to a hard stick. The shevet owes its pliability to the fact that it is freshly cut from the tree (or even still connected to it), in contrast to the mateh, which has long been severed from the tree and has therefore lost its elasticity. Thus, shevet refers to the Jewish tribe (or individual Jew) when it is consciously connected to its source, whereas mateh refers to the same tribe (or individual Jew) when it is not so consciously connected.

Spiritually, shevet can be considered to refer to the soul before it descended into the body, when it was fully conscious of Divinity and its own connection to its source. Mateh would then refer to the soul as it has entered the body and lost this conscious connection—at least temporarily—and been charged with elevating the body and the portion of reality under its purview. In such a state, we must evince the inflexibility of a hardened stick in our devotion to principles and resistance to evil. If successful, we can face the challenges of life confidently and proceed to fulfill our purpose on earth and make reality into the home for God it was intended to be.1


At the end of parashat Chukat, the Israelites arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land, “by the Jordan opposite Jericho.” The ensuing three parashiotBalak, Pinchas, and Matot—describe the events that took place while the Israelites were encamped at their final stop, most prominently the encounter with Moab and Midian.

This parashah, Masei, the last of the Book of Numbers, opens with a recapitulation of the Israelite’s entire trek from Egypt until their final camp, and it takes its name (which means “the journeys of”) from the opening words of this recapitulation. This summary would seem to be a fitting way to close the book. But the fact that the text continues after this review—and indeed, that the entire Book of Deuteronomy is yet to come—indicates that it serves rather as the demarcation between the story of the sojourn in the desert and the preparations for entering the Land of Israel. After looking back at what was, we look forward to what is about to be.

And indeed, the remainder of Masei deals with specific instructions pertaining to the conquest of the land: driving out its idolatrous inhabitants, delineating its borders, designating who will divide it up, specifying where the Levites will live and the special role their cities will play, and detailing additional laws of inheritance.

So it would seem that the opening subject of the parashah is entirely different from the rest of its contents. If the opening review of the Israelites’ itinerary is the end of the story of the desert, perhaps it should have been placed at the end of the previous parashah. The present parashah would then be entirely devoted to the life the people would lead after crossing the Jordan.

The fact that, despite what we might think, the itinerary is part of the look ahead, and actually introduces it, implies that it is at least as relevant to what is to come as it is to what was.

* * *

The distinguishing feature of human life is change. True, lower life forms also grow, learn, and adapt, but once they reach maturity, they remain what they are. Even the forms of life above us—the angels—are static: every angel is the eternal, unchanging personification of a specific level of Divine consciousness or emotion. Only human beings are capable of changing their way of looking at life, of progressing to higher, more Divinely conscious levels of living based on their expanded understanding of reality.

If this spiritual growth is the unique property of human existence, it follows that in order for us to remain human and avoid becoming fossilized as a stagnant animal (or even angel!), this process must go on continuously. We must always strive to expand our spiritual horizons and seek higher levels of living.

The secret of life, then, is to keep moving, to keep journeying upward: never to look at progress only as a phenomenon of the past, but to see it primarily as an integral part of the future.

* * *

As we have seen, the archetype of constricted consciousness is the Land of Egypt. The Hebrew name for Egypt (Mitzraim) means “limits” and “boundaries” (meitzarim). The Exodus from Egypt is thus the archetype for transcending limits in the spiritual life. But here we find an instructive nuance in the way the Israelites’ itinerary is introduced: “These are the journeys of the Israelites who left the Land of Egypt.” This phrase seems to imply that all the journeys were from the Land of Egypt, while technically only the first journey was from Egypt.

By introducing the entire itinerary this way, the Torah teaches us that whenever we go out of Egypt, whenever we transcend one level of life, we should consider our new, expanded level of consciousness a new “Egypt,” a level of constricted awareness relative to where we want to go next. In this way, we are constantly going out of Egypt.

Furthermore, rather than simply listing the stops on the journey, the account is phrased in a way that emphasizes how the Israelites left every place they stopped at: “[They] journeyed from Rameses and camped at Sukot. They journeyed from Sukot and camped at Eitam.... They journeyed from Eitam....”2 This implies that every progression from level to level must be a quantum leap. It is not enough to just enhance or ascend at our present level; each leg of the journey should be a complete departure from the previous way we conceived of God, of life, and of ourselves.3

In this context, it is particularly instructive to realize that not everything that happened along this journey from Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land was altogether positive. At quite a few stops, the Israelites fell backwards, even retreated, and learned the lessons of Divine living the hard way. Nonetheless, they are all called “journeys”; in the long run they all contributed to the final arrival. This teaches us that in order to progress in life, we must learn how to see every regression as a lesson in how to progress further, and thereby turn every failure into a success.

This is possible because, despite the imperative to progress continually, there are certain things that should not change. This is the lesson we learned in the previous parashah, Matot.4 These basic constants—our fundamental beliefs and our resistance to evil—are the bedrock of our spiritual lives, and give us the stability on which we can base our continuous ascent. In particular, we can survive our falls when we realize that they are all orchestrated by Divine providence: we fall specifically in those areas of life where God sees we need to ascend; the rest of our life remains intact, providing the framework we need to put ourselves back together.

* * *

These lessons were particularly pertinent when the Jews were about to enter the Promised Land. The safe and sequestered life of the desert, of seclusion in a totally spiritual environment, naturally encourages spiritual growth. Of course, it is possible to stagnate in a spiritual environment as well, but the main challenge to remaining spiritually alive is in the settled land of mundane, material living. It is therefore fitting to make this point just as our sights become focused on working the land across the Jordan River, so that we remember throughout our mundane lives to strive and progress constantly toward ever higher levels of Divine consciousness. By ascending the ladder of spiritual growth ourselves and helping others make the same climb, we actualize the lessons we learned in the desert and successfully meet the great challenge of making the world into God’s home.5