Parshiot Matot-Masei are the 9th & 10th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 30-36. They begin with a section on Vows & Oaths; the importance of keeping one’s promises, the rights of men to annul the oaths of their daughters and wives when reacting immediately (until or in case the women divorced or become widowed), and the severity of the man’s sin if he hadn’t annulled the vow and it went unfulfilled.
Parashat Matot continues with the command from G-d to Moshe to take revenge against the Midianites and then be gathered to his people. Moshe called for a draft of 1,000 soldiers from each tribe; 12,000 led by Pinhas who took with him the holy vessels and war trumpets.
They killed all the Midianite men and took the women and children captive, along with vast amounts of cattle and spoils of war. They also killed the 5 kings of Midian along with the Prophet Balaam. Burning the Midianite cities, the troops brought everything to Moshe and Elazar the Kohen in the plains of Moab.
Moshe, Elazar & the heads of tribes went to greet the returning soldiers. Moshe grew angry with the officers demanding to know why they spared the women whose immorality was the source of the plague that struck Bnei Yisrael. They were told to execute the male children and any woman who had slept with a man, then to wait outside the camp for 7 days. Those who killed a person or came in contact with a corpse had to be purified with water on the 3rd and 7th days, and the same was the case for any garments of leather or natural fibre.
Elazar instructed the troops that in addition to the water ritual, all metal items created by fire would have to pass through fire in order to be purified. Anything unable to withstand fire could be remedied with water.
G-d told Moshe to tally-up the spoils – the captives and animals, and divide them in 2 portions. From the portion of those who went to battle, he took 1/500 as an offering to G-d. And, of the portion second portion that belonged to Bnei Yisrael who didn’t go out to battle, he took 1/50 and gave it to the Levites.
The totals were 675,000 sheep, 72,000 oxen, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women. So the tax given by the troops to Elazar the Kohen was 675 sheep, 72 oxen, 61 donkeys and 32 women. And Moshe did the same for the portion of Bnei Yisrael, giving 1/50 to the Levites. Then the commanders reported that none fell in battle and in gratitude they would pledge the gold spoils they took from battle, a total of 16,750 shekels. These Moshe and Elazar gave to the Mishkan.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad, who had amassed many herds, saw the land of Jezer and Gilead as good for raising cattle. They approached Moshe and asked to stay in the area of the defeated cities without crossing the Jordan. Moshe asked if they thought it fair that the other tribes should go to battle while they remained. Wouldn’t that turn away the hearts of the tribes from wanting to enter Canaan?
He reminded them of the behaviour of the preceding generation who after visiting the Eshkol Valley perverted the hearts of Bnei Yisrael from going to the land G-d wanted to give them. Instead, other than Kaleb and Joshua, G-d condemned them to wander in the desert 40 years until their demise. ‘Will you do the same now and cause your brothers to be destroyed?
They pledged instead to build cattle pens for their herds and cities for their children, and go into battle with the others until each had inherited his portion in the land. Then they would return to the eastern side of the Jordan.
Moshe accepted their proposal, granting them land of their choice on condition they fulfilled their promise. Then Moshe commanded them in front of Elazar HaKohen, Joshua and all the tribal heads, where they took an oath to go to battle with the other tribes, and in return inherit the lands of Kings Sihon and Og and all their surroundings. Gad built the towns of Divon, Ateret, Aroer, Atrot Shofan, Jezer, Yogbah, Beit Nimrah and Beit Haran. Reuben built Heshbon, Ilaleh, Kiryatayim, Nebo, Baal Meon and Shivmah. Yair, a son of Menashe, captured Giladah, Havot Yair, and Kenat (which he called Novakh).
At the beginning of Parshat Masei G-d told Moshe to write a list of the 42 wanderings of Bnei Yisrael from the time they left Egypt until their arrival in the plains of Moab (interjecting the struggles for water, the oasis in Eilim, as well as the death of Aharon in Hor).
Next, G-d told Moshe to tell the people they would inherit the land of Canaan from its occupants and that they should destroy the idolatrous images and altars therein. Then they should divide the land; the many should get a large portion and the few a smaller portion; by lottery it would be divided among the households. However, if they failed to remove them, the previous occupants would become a thorn in their side.
G-d told Moshe to command Bnei Yisrael about the boundaries of the land. The Southern border began from the Zin Wilderness near Edom to the east of the Salt Sea. The border passed Azmon to Nahal Mitsrayim before reaching the sea. The Great Sea was the western border going north from Mt Hor to Hamath to Ziphron until Hazar-enan. And, on the east, the border went to Shepham, the Kinneret and along the Jordan River until the Salt Sea.
The names of the 12 new tribal leaders were listed; among them were Kaleb ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun.
G-d told Moshe to command Bnei Yisrael to set aside cities for the Levites with surrounding pastures. Beyond the city walls, plots should stretch 2,000 amot in each direction. Six would be cities of refuge for the unintentional murderer and 42 others would be for residence. The number of cities given by each tribe was proportional to the size of their inheritance.
Of the 6 cities of refuge, 3 were to be on the eastern side of the Jordan and 3 in Canaan – to be used by accidental murderers, whether citizen, convert or temporary resident. One who struck with a metal, stone or wood implement was deemed a murderer and denied access; the blood avenger was entitled to exact revenge. But if the murder was unplanned and accidental, the congregation was to ensure the murderer reached the city of refuge where they would stay until the demise of the Kohen Gadol. Should they exit the city before then, blood avengers would have license to kill without recourse. After the Kohen Gadol’s death, the murderers were free to leave.
The law was established for generations that a murderer could be prosecuted on the testimony of 2 witnesses (not 1). Once convicted, no amount of money could redeem them, nor could anyone be bribed to allow a convicted murderer to flee to the cities of refuge. For spilt blood couldn’t be atoned for unless by spilling other blood. ‘Beware not to defile the land, for I, G-d, dwell amidst Bnei Yisrael.’
The Book of Bamidbar ends with a claim from the sons of Gilad of the tribe of Menashe over the inheritance of the daughters of Tselophkhad. Their concern was that when women land-owners married, their perpetual land inheritance could shift to their husband’s tribes. So G-d commanded that (of the original settlers) daughters who inherit their father’s land had to marry within their own tribe. That prevented land parcels from being redistributed to other tribes. Thus, the daughters of Tselophkhad married their uncle’s sons.