Matos and Masei are always read during Bein HaMetzarim,1 the three-week period of quasi-mourning for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This year, these portions are combined and read on the same Shabbos.

The name of a Torah portion indicates its overall theme.2 This is also true of Matos and Masei. The literal meaning of the word Matos is “wooden staffs,” and Masei means “journeys.”

With respect to their tribal affiliations, the Jewish people are often referred to by the terms shevatim and matos, “branches” and “staffs.”3 A branch is a limb that — even when cut off — is still moist and supple. A staff, however, is a thoroughly dried piece of wood; it is thus strong and firm.

So too regarding these terms as descriptions of the Jewish people: shevatim and matos both signify that Jewish souls are rooted in the “divine tree”4 of G‑dliness. Shevatim denotes a revealed connection, such as occurs during prayer and the like. Generally, this refers to the soul as it finds itself above; more specifically, it refers to the state of the Jewish people during the times of the Beis HaMikdash.

Matos, however, describes the Jewish people when they are sent out of the “King’s palace.” In a general sense it refers to the soul’s descent into the body. More particularly, it refers to the descent of exile, when G‑dliness is not revealed, and the person is consequently spiritually coarsened.

Masei also alludes to the soul’s downward journey into this world,5 a journey whose ultimate purpose is spiritual advancement through the service of Torah and mitzvos. Specifically, masei alludes to the descent into exile, inasmuch as the 42 journeys in the desert symbolize our wanderings within the “desert of the nations,”6 throughout the period of exile.7

For in times of exile Jews are “not at home”8 — they are on a journey that takes them far from their true dwelling.

The purpose of this journey into exile is to bring about a positive state of matos — a strengthening of man’s service. The trials and tribulations of exile enable a person to be as firm as a staff — to be strong in his observance of Torah and mitzvos under all circumstances.

The same is true with regard to the “journey” of masei into the “desert of nations.” It too is for the purpose of achieving spiritual heights — elevations the person could not have reached were it not for the challenges of exile.

The fact that the two portions of Matos and Masei are combined indicates that the lesson of each carries over into the lesson of the other:

Although spiritual service in times of exile is like matos, a firm staff that is unfazed by the difficulties of exile, a person cannot be content to rest on his laurels and merely remain on the same spiritual level. The spiritual service of matos must be accompanied by masei, a movement from strength to strength with regard to all matters of Torah and mitzvos.

Thus the person sees to it that not only does he study Torah, but that others engage in Torah study as well. Not only does he perform mitzvos, but he does so in the best and most beautiful manner possible.

Additionally, journeying from one’s regular place may cause a weakness in one’s spiritual service — he has “departed” from that place in which he was used to serving G‑d in the best manner possible.

Masei is therefore connected with Matos. It informs us that one’s journey and spiritual service during this journey must be characterized by the tenacity of the hardened staff. Even when a person finds himself in exile, away from his accustomed place, he must be as steadfast with regard to Torah and mitzvos as he was while at home.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXVIII, pp. 279-285.