Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which G‑d has commanded (Numbers 30:2)
This verse can also be interpreted as follows: Moses spoke to the children of Israel regarding the heads of the tribes, that they must follow their instructions as one follows the word of G‑d.
(El, “to,” can also mean “about”; li, which in this context translates as “of,” usually means “to”; thus el rashei hamatot livnei yisrael (“to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel”) can also read, “[And Moses spoke] about the heads of the tribes to the children of Israel, [saying: This is the thing that G‑d has commanded] . . .”)
This was the procedure with all the laws that Moses taught: first he would teach them to Aaron and the heads of the tribes, and then he would instruct the people, as described in Exodus 34:31–32.
Why are the tribal heads particularly mentioned by the laws of vows? To teach us that an expert Torah scholar has the ability to annul vows like a tribunal of three laymen.
Vows are a means to asceticism.
(Ethics of the Fathers 3:13)
Asceticism leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the [possession of] the holy spirit, and the holy spirit leads to eternal life.
(Talmud, Avodah Zarah 20b)
Better that you not vow, than that you should vow and not fulfill.
Why only upon the Midianites, but not the Moabites (who also sent their daughters to cause Israel to sin)? Because the Moabites got involved because they feared Israel (cf. Numbers 22:2–6); but the Midianites entered a fight that was not theirs.
Another explanation: G‑d said to spare the Moabites because of “two fine creatures which I shall extract from them”—Ruth the Moabite and Naamah the Ammonite (wife of King Solomon).
The double terminology indicates that before the nation of Midian can be defeated, its supernal “minister,” which embodies the spiritual essence of Midian, must be vanquished.
The Hebrew word midian means “strife.” Midian is the essence of divisiveness, which is the root of all evil.
Thus our sages speak of “groundless hatred” as the greatest of evils. In truth, all strife is groundless hatred: the so-called “grounds” that people and nations have for hating and destroying each other are but the various façades of the divisive “I” of Midian—the ego that belies the common source and goal of humanity, and views the very existence of others as an encroachment upon the self.
On the cosmic level, G‑d is the ultimate oneness, and everything G‑dly in our world bears the stamp of His unity. All evil derives from the distortion of this oneness by the veil of divisiveness in which G‑d shrouds His creation.
So before the people of Israel could conquer the “seven nations” that inhabited the land of Canaan—which represent the seven negative traits of the heart—they first had to destroy Midian, which is their source and cause. This is also why the destruction of Midian could be achieved only under the leadership of Moses, who embodied the traits of utter self-abnegation, (and thus) harmony and truth.
(Maamar Heichaltzu 5659)
G‑d had said to Moses, “Avenge the vengeance of the children of Israel upon the Midianites”; yet Moses said: “To take G‑d’s vengeance on Midian”!
G‑d said to Israel: It is you who have an account to settle with them, for they caused Me to harm you. But Moses said: Master of the worlds! If we had been uncircumcised, or idol worshippers, or had denied the mitzvot, the Midianites would not have hated us. They persecute us only on account of the Torah and the precepts which You have given us! Consequently the vengeance is Yours; and so I say: “To take G‑d’s vengeance on Midian.”
(The Chassidic Masters)
Moses wanted to demonstrate to them that it is not the number of troops or their arms that determines victory or defeat, but their worthiness. For Zimri had caused the death of 24,000 without a single sword or armament; while they, numbering only 12,000, would defeat the far more numerous Midianites, “and not a single one of them was lost” (Numbers 31:49), even though in ordinary wars there are casualties also on the victorious side.
G‑d charged Moses with the mission, yet he sends others! But since Moses had grown up in the land of Midian, he thought: It is not right that I should punish one who has done good to me. The proverb says: “A well from which you drank, cast not a stone into it.”
Why did he send Pinchas? He said: “The one who began the mitzvah shall finish it.” It was Pinchas who turned away G‑d’s wrath from Israel and smote the Midianite woman; let him finish the sacred task.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
When laying siege on a city to conquer it, we do not surround it from all four sides, but only from three sides, leaving a way to escape for anyone who wishes to flee for his life. As it is written: “They warred against Midian, as G‑d commanded Moses"; it has been handed down by tradition that this is what G‑d had commanded him.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:7)
What was Balaam doing in Midian? Rabbi Jonathan said: He went to receive his reward for the twenty-four thousand Israelites whose destruction he had caused [by his advice to entice them with the daughters of Moab and Midian]. . . . This is what people say: “When the camel went to demand horns, they cut off the ears he had.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a)
If Moses initially saw their request as the equivalent of the spies’ shunning of the Holy Land, why did he at the end agree to their proposal, and even expand on it, by adding half the tribe of Manasseh to the tribes of Reuben and Gad?
(The fact that they pledged to participate in other tribes’ conquest of the Land answered only the first part of Moses’ complaint to them—“Shall your brethren go to war, and you sit here?”—but not the other, seemingly more grave, accusation—namely, that they are repeating the sin of the spies in spurning the Land, which had caused that entire generation to die out in the desert!)
The explanation is to be found in the first words of the response given by the men of Reuben and Gad to Moses: “We will build sheepfolds here for our sheep, and cities for our young.”
Chassidic teaching explains the sin of the spies as resulting from a reluctance to assume the mission of “settling the Land.” Though they knew that the very purpose of creation is to “make for G‑d a dwelling in the lowly (i.e., physical) world,” they believed themselves incapable of carrying out this mission. “It is a land that consumes its settlers!” the spies cried upon their return from their survey of the Land. How could they be sure that once they involved themselves with the Land, they would not be overwhelmed by its corporeality? How could they know whether they would indeed exploit its lofty potential and not instead sink into the morass of material life?
When the people of Reuben and Gad came forward with their request, Moses thought that he was again meeting with a refusal by a group of “spiritualists” shunning the divinely ordained mission to develop the Land.
In truth, however, it was not the dread of the material that motivated these two tribes to remain east of the Jordan. On the contrary: they wanted to settle these lands, to build cities and ranches, to raise their sheep and cattle on its pastures. Their plea, “Do not take us across the Jordan,” did not express a reluctance to seek out the potential for holiness contained in the Land, but an attraction to even more remote—and thus even loftier—“sparks of G‑dliness.”
After all, the land west of the Jordan, though material, was the “Holy Land”—a land where even the most mundane pursuits are touched with a spiritual glow. Outside of the Holy Land, the physical world is more lowly, and thus contains sparks of divinity that derive from an even higher source. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were convinced that their mission in life was to pursue, extract and elevate the “sparks” inherent in this more spiritually distant corner of creation.
When they said to Moses, ”We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our children,” Moses understood that what they were seeking was not an escape from the Land, but the opportunity to “make a home for G‑d” in an even lowlier domain—in the territories that lie beyond the borders of the most sacred of lands as defined by Israel’s present mandate from G‑d.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The sages taught: Always appoint at least two people together as trustees over public funds. Even Moses, who enjoyed the full trust of G‑d—as it is written, “In all My house he is trusted”—figured the accounts of the Sanctuary together with others, as it says: “By the hand of Itamar the son of Aaron” (Exodus 38:21).
Thus the sages taught: the one who made the appropriation [of the monies donated to the Holy Temple] did not enter the chamber wearing either a hemmed cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet (i.e., nothing in which money can be hidden), lest if he became poor people might say that he became poor because of an iniquity committed in the chamber, or if he became rich people might say that he became rich from the monies in the chamber. For it is a man’s duty to be free of blame before men as before G‑d, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless towards G‑d and towards Israel.”
(Midrash Tanchuma; Mishnah, Shekalim 3:2)
They, on the other hand, had said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our sheep, and cities for our young” (v. 16), giving precedence to their cattle over their children. Said Moses to them: Not so! Make the primary thing primary, and the secondary thing secondary.
Rabbi Meir said: Every stipulation which is not like that of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben is not legally binding. For it is written: “And Moses said unto them: If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over the Jordan, [. . . you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession],” and it is also written, “But if they will not pass over with you armed, then they shall have possessions among you in the Land of Canaan.” (Thus, both sides of the condition have to be spelled out: if the condition is fulfilled, then so-and-so will be the case, but if the stipulation is not fulfilled, then so-and so will be the case.)
(Talmud, Kiddushin 61a)
Because Manasseh caused the sons of Jacob to rend their clothes by hiding Joseph’s goblet in Benjamin’s sack (cf. Genesis 44:13), his tribe was rent in two, half receiving its portion in the lands east of the Jordan, and half on the west.
We learned: Yair the son of Manasseh and Machir the son of Manasseh were born in the days of Jacob, and did not die before Israel entered the Land. (But does it not say, “And there was not left a man of [the generation of the desert], save Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun”? Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov: The decree was directed neither against those under twenty years of age, nor against those over sixty years of age.)
(Talmud, Bava Batra 121b)
The forty-two “stations” from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of every individual Jew, as his soul journeys from its descent to earth at birth to its return to its Source.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
It would seem that there was only one journey which took the Jewish nation out of Egypt—their journey from Rameses to Sukkot. The other “journeys” listed in our Parshah were between points outside of the geographical borders of Egypt. Why, then, does the Torah speak of “the journeys”—in the plural—“of the children of Israel going out of the land of Mitzrayim”?
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” means “borders” and “narrows.” On the spiritual level, the journey from Egypt is a journey from the boundaries that limit us—an exodus from the narrow straits of habit, convention and ego to the “good, broad land” of the infinite potential of our G‑dly soul.
And the journey from Mitzrayim is a perpetual one: what is expansive and uninhibited by yesterday’s standards, is narrow and confining in light of the added wisdom and new possibilities of today’s station. Thus, each of life’s “journeys” is an exodus from the land of Mitzrayim: having transcended yesterday’s limitations, we must again journey from the Mitzrayim that our present norm represents relative to our newly uncovered potential.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
Our chapter opens, “These are the journeys of the children of Israel.” However, it then proceeds to recount not the journeys, but the forty-two encampments at which they stopped during their sojourn in the Sinai Desert!
Yet these encampments were not ends unto themselves—only way-stations and stepping-stones to advance the nation of Israel in their goal of attaining the Promised Land. So the stops themselves are referred to as “journeys.”
The same is true of the journey of life. Pauses, interruptions and setbacks are an inadvertent part of a person’s sojourn on earth. But when everything a person does is toward the goal of attaining the “Holy Land”—the sanctification of the material world—these, too, are “journeys.” Ultimately, they are shown to have been the true motors of progression, each an impetus to the realization of one’s mission and purpose in life.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
This is comparable to a king whose child was ill, and he took him to another place to heal him. On their return journey, the father recounted all their stations: “Here we slept,” “here we caught cold,” “here your head hurt.” By the same token, G‑d said to Moses: Recount for them all the places where it was that they had angered Me.
“Here we slept”—at Mount Sinai, when Moses had to wake them to come receive the Torah. “Here we caught cold”—at Rephidim, where the Amalekites “cooled (your faith in G‑d) on the road.” “Here your head hurt”—when they doubted the return of their head and leader, Moses, and made the Golden Calf.
(Rabbi Abraham Mordechai of Gur)
The journey from Egypt to the Holy Land was a one-way journey: the Israelites did not physically revisit their encampments in the desert. What, then, is the significance of the “return journey” made by the king and his child in the above-cited parable by the Midrash?
As the people of Israel traveled through the desert, they experienced their forty-two encampments as interruptions, even setbacks, in their progress towards the Promised Land. But on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land, they were able to “return,” to look back upon these encampments and re-experience them in a different light: not as a people venturing from slavery toward an unknowable goal through a fearful wilderness, but as a people who, having attained their goal, could now appreciate how each way station in their journey had forged a particular part of their identity and had contributed to what and where they were today.
The great desert we each must cross in the journey of life is the product of what the Kabbalists call the tzimtzum (“constriction”): G‑d’s creation of a so-called vacuum within His all-pervading immanence, a bubble of darkness within His infinite light that allows man the choice between good and evil. For in order that our acts of goodness should be meaningful, there must also be the choice of evil.
Three conditions are necessary to create the possibility of free choice in the heart of man:
a) There must be a withdrawal of the divine light and the creation of the “vacuum” that allows the existence of evil.
b) It is not enough that evil exist; it must also be equipped with the illusion of worthiness and desirability. If evil were readily perceived for what it is—the suppression of light and life—there would be no true choice.
c) On the other hand, an absolute vacuum would shut out all possibility for choosing life. Thus the tzimtzum must be mitigated with a glow, however faint, of the divine light that empowers us to overcome darkness and death.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the three stations in the Midrash’s metaphor: “Here we slept,” “here we were cooled,” “here your head hurt.”
“Here we slept” refers to the withdrawal of the divine vitality in order to create the tzimtzum.
“Here we were cooled” refers to the mitigation of the tzimtzum with a faint glow of divine light.
And “here your head hurt” is a reference to the many contortions that cloud our minds and confuse our priorities, leading to a distorted vision of reality and misguided decisions.
All these, however, serve a single purpose: to advance us along the journey of life and to imbue the journey with meaning and worth. Today we can only reiterate to ourselves our knowledge of this truth; on the “return journey,” we shall revisit these stations and see and experience their true import.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Hence journeys 1 through 11 were in the first year following the Exodus, and journeys 32–42 in the fortieth year, meaning that there were 19 journeys in the intervening 38 years. According to the Midrash, 19 of these 38 years were spent in Kadesh, and the other 19 wandering through the desert.
(I.e., their camp extended from Bet HaYeshimot to Avel HaShittim.)
Rabbah bar Chana said: I have seen this place; it is three parasangs (approx. 12 miles) in extension.
(Talmud, Yoma 75b; Rashi)
The Torah should have begun with the verse “This month shall be to you the head of months . . .” (Exodus 12:2), which is the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people. Why does it begin with “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth”?
So that if the nations of the world will say to the people of Israel, “You are thieves, for you have conquered the lands of seven nations,” they will reply to them: “The entire world is G‑d’s; He created it, and He gives it to whomever he desires. It was His desire to first give it to them, and by His desire it was taken from them and given to us.”
(Rashi, Genesis 1:1)
The court is obligated to straighten the roads to the cities of refuge, to repair them and broaden them. They must remove all impediments and obstacles. . . . Bridges should be built [over all natural barriers], so as not to delay one who is fleeing to [the city of refuge]. The width of a road to a city of refuge should not be less than thirty-two cubits.
“Refuge,” “Refuge” was written at all crossroads, so that the murderers should recognize the way and turn there.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Murder and the Preservation of Life 8:5)
The Torah includes six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments). . . . Of these, the mitzvot that can be observed today [following the destruction of the Holy Temple and our exile from the Holy Land] number, altogether, three hundred and thirty-nine. Among these are mitzvot for which a person becomes obligated only under certain circumstances, so that it is possible that never in his lifetime will these circumstances come about and he will never have the opportunity to do them—e.g., the mitzvah to pay an employee on time. . . . The number of mitzvot that every Jew is obligated in is two hundred and seventy. . . . Many of these, however, are binding only on certain days of the year, or at certain times of the day.
There are six mitzvot whose obligation is constant, and does not depart from the person for a single moment throughout his lifetime. These are: to believe in G‑d, to avow His oneness, to renounce idolatry, to love G‑d, to fear Him, and to avoid temptation to sin. They are symbolized by the verse, “Six cities of refuge shall they be for you.”
Every transgression of the divine will is a subtle form of “inadvertent murder.” “Murder,” because it disrupts the flow of vitality from the Source of Life to the soul of the transgressor; “inadvertent,” because a sinful deed is always contrary to the true will of the transgressor, who has been misled by the distortions imposed by his animal self.
For the one who spiritually “slays a soul unawares,” there have been set aside six spiritual “cities of refuge.” These are (as per the Sefer HaChinuch cited above) the “six constant mitzvot” that apply to every Jew, at all times and in all circumstances, so that they are readily accessible to one who seeks refuge from his faults and failings, whomever he might be and wherever the desire to rectify his life might strike him.
But a haven is of little use if it is inaccessible or its location is unknown. As is the case with the physical cities of refuge, it is the community’s responsibility to “straighten the roads . . . to repair them and broaden them . . . remove all impediments and obstacles” and post signs at all crossroads pointing the way to the haven of Torah.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The Great Sanhedrin (which served as the supreme court of Torah law) consisted of seventy-one members; a minor Sanhedrin (authorized to try capital crimes), of twenty-three. . . . From where do we know that a minor Sanhedrin is of twenty-three? It is written, “And the congregation shall judge . . . and the congregation shall save.” One congregation condemns and the other congregation defends, hence we have twenty, as a “congregation” (eidah) consists of not less than ten. . . . And from where do we derive the additional three? By the implication of the text (Exodus 23:2) . . . which says that to acquit, a majority of one suffices, whereas to convict, a majority of two is required. (Thus, if ten judges vote to acquit, it would require a tribunal of 22 to convict.) And since a court cannot be of an even number, we need twenty-three.
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 2a)
Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and raiment for them, that they should not pray for their son’s death.
Why is the high priest to blame? As they say here [in Babylon], “Toby did the jobbing and Ziggud got the slogging?” or as they say there [in the Land of Israel]: “Shechem got him a wife and Mabgai caught the knife?” Said a venerable old scholar: I heard an explanation at one of the sessional lectures of Rava, that they should have implored for divine grace for their generation, which they failed to do.
As was the case of that fellow who was devoured by a lion some three parasangs from the town where Rabbi Joshua ben Levi lived, and Elijah the prophet would not commune with Rabbi Joshua on that account for three days.
(Talmud, Makkot 11a)
How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on the second tablet. This means that “Do not murder” corresponds to “I am the L‑rd your G‑d.” The Torah is telling us that one who sheds blood, it is as if he has reduced the image of the King.
To what is this analogous? To a king of flesh and blood who entered a country and put up portraits of himself, and made statues of himself, and minted coins with his image. After a while, the people of the country overturned his portraits, broke his statues and invalidated his coins, thereby reducing the image of the king. So, too, one who sheds blood reduces the image of the King, as it is written (Genesis 9:6): “One who spills a man’s blood . . . for in the image of G‑d He made man.”
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.”
I can understand Yom Kippur, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon, and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given; but what happened on the fifteenth of Av? Rav Judah said in the name of Shmuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes to intermarry. For it is written: “This is the thing which G‑d has commanded concerning the daughters of Tzelafchad . . .”—meaning that this ordinance shall remain in effect for this generation only.
(Talmud, Taanit 30b)