Parashat: Matot-Masei

Parashat Matot-Masei

July 30, 2022 | 2 Av 5782

Torah: Numbers 30:2-36:13; Triennial 33:50-36:13

Haftarah: I Kings 9:2-9, 9:4-5a

Matot: Marriage (and) Vows

Ilana Kurshan

Our parashah begins with the laws governing oaths and vows. The Torah teaches that both men and women may make vows, but whereas a man’s vows remain binding, a woman’s vows may be annulled by her husband or father (Numbers 30). Indeed, the majority of the verses in this chapter refer to the details of how and when a husband may annul his wife’s vows, a subject discussed at length throughout Seder Nashim, the section of the Talmud dealing with marriage, divorce, adultery, and other aspects of the relationship between husband and wife. The discussion of vows both in our parashah and in the Talmud suggests that vows played an important role in the marital dynamic, offering a window into the risks and rewards of intimate, committed partnership.

Our parashah, in discussing the laws of vowing, refers to “vows and sworn obligations of self-denial” (30:14), and indeed the majority of the vows discussed in the Talmud in the context of husband-wife relationships refers to vows of prohibition, in which a person declares that something will be forbidden to him or her. For instance, an individual may swear not to eat certain fruits, or not to bathe, or not to derive any benefit from another person. At times such vows were taken in an attempt to draw closer to God by means of self-denial, like the case of the Nazirite, who vows to abstain from wine and from hair-cutting and from contact with the dead for thirty days. Anyone who has ever committed to a diet recognizes that self-denial seems at times worthwhile in service of a higher end. If I do not eat chocolate cake for a month, I will be able to wear my favorite dress to my sister’s wedding. And if I swear in the name of God that I will not drink wine for a month, then my self-denial will bear witness to my devotion to God, bringing me to a higher spiritual level.

The Talmud recognizes that such vows of self-denial, while perhaps spiritually efficacious for the individual, could be quite harmful in the context of intimate partnership. After all, who would want to sleep in the same bed as a person who has vowed not to bathe for a month, no matter how pious his or her intentions? The rabbis, in light of this difficulty, imposed limitations on the vows and oaths taken by husbands and wives. These limitations may seem foreign to our modern sensibilities, given their inherent gender imbalances; but in biblical times, they served as a means of negotiating spousal relationships.

Basing themselves on verses from our parashah, the rabbis teach, according to one opinion, that a husband is authorized to annul any vow that his wife takes that involves her self-affliction, or that pertains to matters between him and her (Nedarim 79b). For instance, if a woman vows not to wear make-up, or not to engage in sexual relations, her husband may annul that vow. Indeed, should he not annul such a vow, it would be tantamount to saying that he is not interested in continuing their relationship. The Talmud states that when a husband fails to annul such a vow by his wife, it is as if “he puts his finger between her teeth” (Ketubot 71a) – meaning that he is asking for it, and it is his own fault if he is negatively impacted by her behavior. As such, a wife’s vows may be understood as a passive-aggressive test of her husband’s devotion: If you love me, surely you will annul my vow.

Conversely, the Talmud (Ketubot chapter 7) also restricts the ways a husband can restrict his wife’s behavior by means of a vow. Although a wife may not annul her husband’s vows, she is also not required to remain in a marriage in which her husband’s vows restrict her behavior in certain ways. For instance, if a husband takes a vow with the implication that his wife may not attend weddings or pay shiva visits, then she is entitled to a divorce immediately, because a husband may not deprive his wife of social connection. And if he takes a vow with the implication that she may not spend the holidays in her father’s home, he may do so only for one holiday but no more, suggesting once again that he is limited in the degree to which he may restrict her autonomy. These laws reflect an awareness that a husband may, in an effort to assert control and dominion, impose restrictions on his wife that we would refer to in modern parlance as domestic abuse; in such situations, a woman has legal right to be released from the marriage and to receive the payment due to her by her marriage contract.

The Talmudic discussion of vows made by husbands and wives offers insight into the emotional and intimate aspects of marriage. As Dov Berkovitz writes in an essay about Tractate Ketubot (HaDaf HaKiyumi, untranslated), a vow made by a wife and annulled by her husband, or a vow made by a husband restricting his wife, is a window into the inner workings of their hearts – is the husband trying to get space from his wife? Is he trying to control her? Is the wife testing her husband’s devotion? Does she feel sufficiently confident in his love? The Talmud, in imposing restrictions on such vows, acknowledges that marriage is a very sensitive human dynamic, best handled with great care.

Marriage, like any committed long-term partnership, forges a deep connection in which both individuals expose their most vulnerable aspects to one another. The reward for such vulnerability and exposure is the potential for mutual understanding, trust, dedication, and love. By getting to know another person in the deepest possible way, we learn how to give that person what they most need, when they most need it. We learn how to draw out what is best in the other person, and how to speak honestly and openly about what we wish were otherwise. Ideally we do so without causing too much pain, because, as the Talmud recognizes, two people who love one another may also know how to hurt one another the most. We hope that with time, we will learn to trust and not to test; to heal and not to hurt; to love and not to lose the person we hold most dear.

Masei: A Lyric of Love

Ilana Kurshan

When my husband and I began dating, I took him to meet my family in the town where I was raised. One afternoon we went on a long run together around town, and I gave him a guided tour of my childhood: Here is where I went to high school. Here is where I fell off my bike in fifth grade. Here is where my best friend lived. I was reminded of this moment in our courtship when reading this week’s parashah, Masei, with its focus on geography and its underlying theme of romantic reminiscence.

Parashat Masei opens with a long list of all the encampments of the Israelites in the wilderness, proceeds to delineate the borders of the land of Israel, and then mandates the allocation of specific cities for the Levites and, from among those holdings, the designation of cities of refuge. At first this focus on journeys, boundaries, and cities seems rather dull and prosaic; after all, does the Torah really need to recount for us every single one of the forty-two places in the wilderness where the Israelites set up camp? Read with a more poetic sensibility, however, our parashah becomes a love letter to the Jewish people and to the land of Israel, expressing God’s devotion in language less literal than lyrical.

The opening verses of our parashah provide an itinerary of the wilderness journey, beginning with the departure from Rameses, Egypt on the fifteenth of Nisan, and culminating in the arrival at the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho, a full forty years (and forty-nine biblical verses) later. The midrash explains the purpose of this extensive itinerary by reference to a parable about a king whose son was ill. The king took his son on a journey to a distant place to heal him. When they were on their way back, the king began recounting the various stages of their journey: “Here we slept. Here we cooled off. Here you had a headache.” The parable draws the analogy to God’s instruction to Moshe to “recount to the Israelites all the places where they provoked me” (Tanchuma Numbers 33:1; Rashi on 33:1). In this parable, God is the king who brings the Israelites on a long journey to heal them from the wounds and traumas inflicted by slavery, transforming them into a mature people capable of bearing responsibility. As the many encampments suggest, it was a journey with many starts and stops, and many moments of rupture. But in spite of all the times the Israelites provoked God along the way—by complaining about the food, by speaking ill of their leaders, by constructing an idolatrous calf—God nonetheless stayed with them.

In the weekly synagogue Torah reading, it is customary to chant the forty-nine verses detailing the Israelites’ itinerary to a special melody instead of the regular cantillations. This melody is very similar to the melody used to chant the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), originally recited when the Israelites first set out on their journey, suggesting that the itinerary of the “journeys” from which Parshat Masei takes its name is in fact a song of its own, parallel to the Song of the Sea. As such, we might think of the Song of the Sea and Masei as bookends, flanking the forty years of wandering in poetic chant. In the Song of the Sea, the people praise God for what He has pledged to do for them: “In Your love you lead the people You redeemed…Till your people cross over, O Lord” (Exodus 15:13, 16). In the lyrical itinerary of Masei, they attest that God has made good on that promise, standing by them through thick and then.

The period of wandering in the wilderness is analogized in the prophetic imagination to a time of young love between God and Israel: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). God led the people day in and day out, by pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, through the seemingly endless sands of the wilderness; the people in turn followed God devotedly, trusting in God’s love. In the book of Exodus, the final of the “four languages of redemption” used to describe God’s pledge to the Israelites captures this exclusive bond: “And I will take you to be My people, and I will be Your God” (Exodus 7:7). The long wilderness journey, in all its many stages, serves to seal this bond of love between God and the people of Israel, which will blossom into maturity once the people settle in the Promised Land.

The second half of the parashah, which focuses on the borders of the land of Israel and the designation of special cities within it, looks ahead to this period of more mature love, when God and Israel at last settle down with one another. The Torah sketches the boundaries of the land, moving from the tip of the Dead Sea in the south, to the shores of the Great Sea in the west, to the peak of Mount Hor in the north, to the slopes of the Kinneret in the east. These verses read less like a geography lesson than like a literary blazon cataloguing the physical features of a beloved subject, as in Spenser’s marriage poem, Epithalamion: “Her goodly eyes like sapphires shining bright / Her forehead ivory white…” Indeed, throughout the classic biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, the female lover is described by invoking geographical sites and features of the land of Israel: “My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms from the vineyards of Ein Gedi…Your hair is a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead… Your neck is like the Tower of David” (Songs 1:13, 4:1, 4:4). The midrash leaves no doubt that the land is an expression of God’s love: “The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Israel: The land of Israel is beloved unto me, as it is written, ‘the land the Lord your God cares for’ (Deut. 11:12), and Israel is beloved to me, as it is written, ‘for the Lord your God loves you’ (Deut. 23:6). God said: I will enter the people of Israel, who are beloved to Me, into the land that is beloved to Me” (Tanchuma Buber, Masei, 5).

The prophets, too, describe the people’s relationship to the land of Israel as a romantic bond. When the people of Israel leave the land, it becomes like a widow (“Alas! How lonely sits the city… She that was great among nations, is become like a widow” Lamentations 1:1); when they return to the land, it is like a wedding celebration (“Nevermore shall you be called abandoned. But you shall be called ‘I desire her,’ and your land ‘mastered’ (be’ula, from ba’al)… as a young man masters a maiden, and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,” Isaiah 62:4-5). God’s love for the people of Israel is consummated only when they settle within its borders, which God fervently desires. As Rabbi Yehuda Brandes notes in a Dvar Torah that inspired my own (also see the Tiferet Shlomo on Masei; quoted in Torat Imecha, vol. 2, p. 443, untranslated), the term used in our parashah to signify “draw a boundary line” (t’tau, 34:7; v’hitavitem, 34:10) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “desire” (ta’ava), suggesting that the demarcation of boundaries is not merely political or geographic, but is an expression of love and longing.

Our parashah, filled with place names and geographical features, is a mapping of the evolving romance between God and Israel, beginning with the young bride trailing after her groom through the wilderness and culminating in the couple building a home together in the Promised Land. From Rameses to Succot, from Succot to Etam. From the Great Sea to Mount Hor, and from Mount Hor to Levo Hamat. Like the tour I gave my husband of my hometown, these litanies—read less literally—are a lyric of love.

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