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