Parashat Matot-Mas’ei

July 14, 2023Marsha B. Moller

Parashat Matot-Mas’ei, the last parashah in the Book of Numbers, continues the story of the Israelites as they approach the land of Canaan. 

What are the highlights of this Torah portion? Women’s oaths/vows are recognized, giving their voices some credibility. The Israelites battle with the Midianites. Two of the 12 tribes, Reuben and Gad, petitioned to Moses not to settle in the land of Canaan. At first, Moses is not enthused with this request, but when Reuben and Gad assure Moses that they will venture into Canaan to help the other ten tribes fight for the land, Moses assents to their wishes. As is often found in the Torah, prior information is repeated, such as the past travels of the Israelites and how the land in Canaan will be divided amongst the tribes. New leaders are named. Drawing distinctions between different types of crimes, rules regarding punishment for murder are enumerated. And, five women are granted land inheritance with some stipulations.

Two parts of this double Torah portion intrigue me. Five women from Manessah’s tribe, who are the only heirs to their father’s land, ask for the right to inherit the land allotment. This is first requested and granted earlier in Numbers 24 and reiterated in this parashah. Here are these women's names: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah, daughters of Zelophehad. As part of the negotiation, the women agree to marry within their ancestral family to receive the land inheritance. 

What kind of courage did it take for these women to band together and put forward this request?  What would have happened if the sisters disagreed with the negotiation terms? How did they set aside individual desires to marry someone from another family? How did these women ensure that all five fulfilled their end of the bargain, insuring the land inheritance?

As part of a sisterhood/women’s group, we achieve consensus, agree to accept a decision, and move forward. Maybe the deliberations are difficult. But, these challenging conversations allow for the betterment of the group. We accept the imperfect and agree to amend when needed. These five courageous sisters provide an example of women united in sisterhood. It takes courage to state one’s position. It takes compromise to reach a consensus. It takes skill and willpower to keep looking forward.

For a fascinating read about these five women, take a look at Chapter 10 in Rabbi Marla J. Feldman’s new book, Biblical Women Speak: Hearing their Voices through New and Ancient Midrash.

The second part of the parashah that piques my interest is Moses’ misunderstanding of Reuben and Gad’s request. The tribes want to remain in the east and not settle in the land of Canaan, as the land is very suitable for herding sheep. Initially, Moses gets angry and Reuben and Gad have to reassure Moses that they will not abandon the other tribes in their fight for the land in Canaan. 

At our most recent Northeast District convention, our own WRJ President Sara Charney and Vivian Blumstein gave a presentation: ‘When to Listen? When to Speak?” Did you know that the words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ have the same letters? Perhaps Moses did not remain silent long enough to understand Reuben and Gad’s request. Or, Moses might have immediately stopped listening and only thought that a special request would cause problems for the journey into the Promised Land. Maybe Moses should have listened with an open mind and his voice silent. Moses might have taken some sage advice from WRJ leaders to remain silent in order to truly listen.

When I think about our role in our sisterhoods/women’s groups and Districts — and I can relate this to my family as well — we are often programmed to react in a particular way. Neural pathways are created based on patterns of speech and behavior that we notice in others. We make judgments based on tone of voice and body language, often before hearing out the other person. 

How many times have we incorrectly assumed someone’s intentions or ideas? What problems occur when we jump to a conclusion?  Maybe when we rely upon our brain to ‘listen’ for us, we are deprived of the opportunity to learn something new and process what is being communicated.

This is a huge challenge for me personally, as I have relied upon my brain to anticipate what is happening, to make me feel more in control so I can quickly respond. My goal is to be silent in order to listen. I must remember that there is plenty of time to respond. I need not be the first to raise a hand. 

In Parashat Matot-Mas’ei, we learn about the collective voice of women and the power that can be gained through a united effort. And we learn that the voice must not deafen us to others’ ideas. Collaboration is an important goal for me as a District leader. In order to have a collective voice that resonates within our sisterhoods and with the broader community, we must also be silent to listen. In that way, relationships between individuals and groups can be nurtured as we collaborate to embody our Reform Jewish values.

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