Torah Ecology: Mattot (Num. 30:2-32:42) / Massey (Num. 33:1-36:13)

This double portion that concludes Numbers begins with regulations related to women’s vows and ends with regulations related to women who inherit. As attractive as it might be to our modern sensibility to view these sets of regulations as a bold statement for women’s rights and responsibilities, it is equally tempting to comment that these rights and responsibilities are circumscribed by relationships to men. Women’s vows have validity only to the extent a father or husband permits; and a woman’s right to inherit is for the purpose of preserving the inheritance of her father in the absence of a male heir.

I like to view these passages in a different way, though, by setting aside, to the extent possible, my own cultural preoccupations with equality and the rights of the individual, in this case, women. Biblical culture emphasizes community and roles in ways we don’t. The primary ideal is not individual liberty and responsibility but communal harmony and interdependence. Men have a role in this culture and women have a role. Without each fulfilling their role, the whole cannot survive. When necessity dictates it, people move beyond their prescribed roles to maintain the whole.

Preservation of a mission-directed community also dictates the form vengeance against the Midianites takes. This vengeance on behalf of G-d and division of the spoils of war is Moses’ final act before he is gathered to his people. Moses delegates 1000 from every tribe to “avenge” the Lord and Phinehas, son of Eleazar the priest, to carry the holy vessels and trumpets into war. Phinehas already demonstrated his zealotry on behalf of the Lord when he thrust a spear through two individuals, Zimri, an Israelite man, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman. Now his zeal will lead this community devoted to the Lord against a community devoted to Ba’al Peor, a proxy war in a sense.

When the Israelites prevail, they kill all the men and take captive all the women of Midian, their little ones, cattle, flocks and goods and burn all their encampments. Moses holds these women accountable for distracting and leading the men of Israel astray at a critical moment in their history and orders every woman who has lain with a man killed along with every male child. In this way, the threat to the Israelite community and its mission is neutralized now and in the future as the remaining women and girls are absorbed into the Israelite community.

The fighting force is admonished to carry out their mission with similar thoroughness as they enter the Land to take it: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell” (Num. 33:55).

The Hebrew word translated here as “harass” (וְצָרְרוּ) means bind, pack or wrap. In some contexts, it means to make narrow. It is associated with hostility and enmity. צָרְר is the root in “Mizraim,” that is, Egypt, the narrow place. In this sense, leaving the inhabitants of the land in it returns the community of Israelites to their condition of servitude, the condition they left behind in the exodus from Egypt. What a strange thing it would be to begin the Israelite story with leaving one narrow place, enduring the trials of 40 years wandering in the desert, and finally returning another narrow place.

Freedom is the basic existential requirement for establishing right relationships with G-d, one’s fellow human beings and the rest of creation. It is a prerequisite for recreating the Garden in the Land, the task of this community. Ironically, the text presents the case that creating a blood-free zone requires shedding blood: “So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it” (Num. 35:33). In this instruction, we return to the real world mystery of animal sacrifice, in which blood generates impurity and purifies, in which the blood of an animal substitutes for the blood of a human being, in which there is a profound sense of human responsibility and guilt for introducing death and bloodshed to creation and in which more bloodshed somehow atones for that sin.

In this way we return to the ongoing effort of this community to work out the paradox that sustaining life requires taking life and to consider how a transcendent G-d can enter a finite community and live within it: “And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel” (Num. 35:34).


I have struggled some as I’ve worked my way through Numbers to discover structural mechanisms. While I’ve read various passages in Numbers many times, this is a first attempt to analyze it systematically, and it will require some percolation before those mechanisms become clear to me.

Thanks to the comments of a friend, I notice that there are two censuses, the first of the Exodus generation, the second of the generation that will enter and take the Land. I also notice three location divisions, the encampment around Mt. Sinai followed by the march toward Kadesh-Barnea; the encampment at Kadesh-Barnea and the march toward the plains of Moab; and the encampment in the plains of Moab preparing to enter the Land. Chapter 33 of Numbers recounts the entire journey.

The complaints and various rebellions occur on the 38 year march to and in the encampment at Kadesh-Barnea: the murmuring about meat in Num. 11, Miriam and Aaron’s murmuring against Moses in Num. 12, the negative report of the spies and Israel refusing to take up its mission in Num. 13 and 14, the rebellion of Korach and the levites in Num. 16, the complaint about water and Moses striking the rock in Num. 20, and the complaint about lack of food and water in Num. 21. The final acts of fear and faithlessness occur in the plains of Moab in the incidents with Zimri and Cozbi and with Ba’al Peor.

All of the leaders’ complaints center around issues of power and jealousy. All but two of the peoples’ complaints center around issues of food and water. Only the last two incidents on the plains of Moab are direct affronts to G-d, Zimri and Cozbi at the door of the Tent of Meeting and finally, eating with the Midianite women before Ba’al Peor.

The second census follows these last events, telling us that those not ready to begin the next part of a mission that requires complete focus and devotion to a purpose have been purged. The instrument of this communal purification is the earth itself, as the fires, plagues, serpents and dramatic earth opening to swallow perpetrators demonstrate an ethical consciousness pervading everything. Through it all, the relationship of G-d and Israel is passionate and volatile but is also sustained and sustaining.

I hope to come back to these structural elements in the book of Numbers in more detail at a later time.


Numbers presents two strategies for forging Israel into a fighting force with an unswerving focus on mission: purging within and extermination without. Like animal sacrifice, these practices are horrifying today. How can this be an expression of the love story embodied in the Exodus from Egypt? How can the stories in which these techniques are used inspire us today?

In curriculum writing as in grant writing and mission statement writing, goals or basic principles are general and something you hope will last the life of the organization. Measurable objectives are slightly more flexible. Strategies are completely changeable. If a strategy doesn’t serve to meet objectives, it is common sense to change it. I imagine G-d might use different strategies in today’s world based on the principles the Torah teaches.

These strategies the Torah reports in Numbers are time- and location-specific even if we accept them as historical (factual) events. As I come to understand some of the basic principles, I can see how they might work. Pinchas and Mattot-Massei, for example. As I thought about the events of those portions, I can see how they might shock me into razor-sharp consciousness about my purpose and mission going into battle, how they would eliminate distracting, counter-productive thoughts and activities. I can see how they might have the effect of a Plan A that must succeed because there is no Plan B other than to languish in the desert and leave the world as they found it, according to the text, purposeless, greedy, ruthless, violent, enslaved to the wealthy and powerful.

The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. – James A. Baldwin

There is a major restriction on the right to the land, however, and this is the next stage of the Israelite mission, after they take it and settle in it. There is even a powerful restriction on the right to life, to not become “prey,” and that restriction is that Israelites are to use the land and life itself to build a just community, a holy community, spreading holiness in the world. Failing that, they “merit” nothing more than the people before them, nothing more than other animals in fact. In the plains of Moab, they are still on the boundary of hope, hope that they will create that sacred community.

I can also reject these strategies for my own life because in my current existential situation, they run utterly counter to other principles in the Torah that are critical in our world.  Ethical decision-making is often complex, involving multiple “goods” and “bads” that are difficult to disentangle. Doing a good thing, like preserving life, can involve taking life, but if it doesn’t have to, why would we?

I believe that in Judaism, we are not meant to follow a set of practices slavishly regardless of the circumstances. This is why Jews and Jewish scholars discuss and analyze in every generation, applying eternal principles and adapting strategies to ever-changing places and times. An excellent article by Rabbi Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, shows this idea in action with regard to kashrut

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.  – James A. Baldwin

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