D’var Torah: Parashat Matot-Mas’ei

By Cantor David E. Reinwald 

 A month and a half ago, we began the Book of Numbers at Parashat Bemidbar.  There were a lot of repetitive patterns in that portion, and so now, as we end this book this week, I am curious to see if any of those patterns reemerge.  I will focus on the second of the double portion, Parashat Mas’ei.

In chapter 34, verses 16-28, we see a remnant of the representatives of the tribes again announced in a list, just as they had stepped forward in Parashat Bemidbar.  However, not all of the tribes are represented here.  Only six tribes are mentioned, also with additional focus on the clans of the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menasheh, as well as the newly announced leader of the people, Joshua.  In Parashat Matot (the first of this double portion), the fate of the tribes of Reuben and Gad is somewhat discussed, but this still leaves four other tribes out of the picture.  It seems that certain tribes are more distinguished for the responsibility of holding land in Canaan, which is what they are being called to here.

I believe that the end of the Book of Numbers is a great finale in itself.  What is to come in Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of events happening in the Torah as well as a highlight of major and essential components that remain with us in our “review” of the living components of the Torah.  Among these are the Ten Commandments, as well as the essential addition of the words of the Shema—words which basically capture the highest teaching of the Ten Commandments, our very first given tenets of Judaism.  But, here at the end of the Book of Numbers, is a hopeful conclusion looking forward at the gifts the Israelites will inherit as they journey forward into the land of Canaan.

An interesting fact about this portion is that it includes a set of two tropes that are found nowhere else in the Torah—they are only used one time.  These are also the only tropes among all that are used that only have one occurrence.  I rarely have ever taught these tropes, because they are rarely chanted (although I am glad to teach them to you if you want to build your knowledge of trope to the highest level!).  The tropes occur on the first of a repeating pattern of two words in chapter 35, verse 5.  Alpayim ba’amah, two thousand cubits (one cubit is approximately the length of your forearm).  Here, this paragraph is setting up dimensions of town property that will go to the tribes in which they are also instructed to keep a separate pasture ground for their cattle to graze within the walls of the town.  The name of the tropes on these two words is Yerach ben Yomo (“a one-day-old [new] moon”) and Karnei Farah (“the horns of a cow”), respectively describing the way these tropes actually look.  But, how ironic to have a trope that calls itself the “horns of a cow,” to be used to describe the measurement of land fit for raising cattle!

This section of the portion also reiterates, similar to Parashat Bemidbar, the formation of a square with same length going east, south, west, and north (those are the order of the directions as found in verse 5).  And, while here it is measured in actual length, the information provided to us at the beginning of the Book of Numbers only enumerates the amount of people on each side of the square formation.  Yet, because of the large enumeration of masses in Parashat Bemidbar, these could have been equal in size—we are talking about thousands upon thousands of troops described at the beginning of this book, and now the large towns where these people have all made their lives.

So, the remaining question is: why is this stand-alone set of tropes here in this passage?  It is a question that I cannot offer a quick answer for, as there are certainly many other passages in the Torah deemed, perhaps, far more worthy.  But, let’s go back to the fact that this portion is likely a finale.  Deuteronomy would be written and added later to the Torah.  Perhaps, this is comparable to the joyous, standout dedication to the building of permanent land and, furthermore, to the future hope of finally grounding ourselves after such a long journey.  Halleluyah!

Chazak Chazak V’nitchazeik.

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