Numbers in [square brackets] are the mitzva-count of the Sefer HaChinuch.
KOHEN – First Aliya – 16+12 p’sukim (30:2-31:12)
“And Moshe spoke to the leaders of the Tribes of Israel…”
The first principle of the topic is that a person must fulfill the terms of a vow and it is prohibited to “profane one’s word” . On the other hand, built into the Torah’s laws are procedures for release from vows. These pro cedures also constitute a mitzva . A girl (12-12½ yrs.) who vows can have her vows nullified by her father (only on the day he hears of them). Similarly (but with differences), a wife’s vows can be nullified by her husband. (In this case, only some vows, those which affect the husband are subject to his nullification.)
G-d next commands Moshe to do battle against Midyan, and then to prepare to die. Moshe drafts 1000 men from each tribe for the task.[SDT] Commentaries point out that the People were reluctant to comply because they knew that Moshe would die shortly after successful completion of the battle. Moshe, on the other hand, enthusiastically complies with G-d’s command, his personal interests to the contrary, notwith standing. [SDT] The Chatam Sofer notes that when G-d commands the battle against Midyan, He calls it NIKMAT BNEI YISRAEL, a revenge for Israel’s sake. When Moshe calls the people to battle, he refers to revenge for G-d’s honor. If the people would be fighting for their own honor, they might forgo the battle and not hasten Moshe’s end. But to avenge G-d’s honor, they dare not refuse.
Pinchas is sent as “chaplain”. The 12,000 strong army succeeded in killing all male Midyanites including 5 kings and Bil’am. The women, child ren, herds, flocks, and possessions of Midyan were taken as booty. The cities and palaces were destroyed. The army returned to the Israelite camp at Arvot Moav.
Note: There is a bit of confusion among commentaries as to whether the tribe of Levi sent a contingent to fight this war or not. If they did, did Menashe and Efraim combine as the tribe of Yosef, thereby keeping the total number at 12000, or was there actually 13000 who fought. Levi’s probable involvement is due to the fact that the war was NOT for the purpose of conquest of territory; had it been, Levi would not be directly involved. If so, Menashe and Efraim probably fought as the tribe of Yosef.
LEVI – Second Aliya – 12+17+13 p’sukim (31:13-54)
Moshe, Elazar, and the tribal leaders went out to greet the returning soldiers. Moshe was angry that the officers kept the women of Midyan alive since it was they who were instrumental in the downfall of Israel in the Pe’or affair and the consequent plague. The women and male children were killed, the girls remained captive. The soldiers were told to remain outside the camp for 7 days because of their ritual impurity as a result of the war. Elazar HaKohen sets down the laws of purification of vessels. Many of the details of “kashering” and “toveling” of vessels are derived from here.
G-d tells Moshe to order a counting of the spoils of war. The booty is to be divided equally between the soldiers on the one hand and the People on the other. Taxes of 1/500 were imposed upon the soldiers. Detailed itemization takes up many p’sukim of this portion.
And then the half that went to the people is itemized. A tax of 1/50 (the standard amount for T’ruma) is imposed upon the people. These taxes were turned over to Elazar HaKohen. Detailed itemization takes up many more p’sukim. The officers approach Moshe with more gifts of gold in thanks to G-d for not losing even one person in battle.
SHLISHI – Third Aliya – 19 p’sukim (32:1-19)
The tribes of Reuven and Gad (only later joined by half of Menashe) were heavily laden with flocks of sheep and requested permission to settle on the east bank of the Jordan River – land particularly suitable for grazing (as opposed to Eretz Yisrael, where extensive sheep-grazing is a problem). Moshe’s initial reaction is intense anger, fearing that the request of the 2 tribes would discourage the People of Israel from wanting to proceed into the Land, repeating the experience of the “spies” of almost 40 years earlier. The key objection on Moshe’s part seems to be the potential negative effect on the rest of the People. To this, the tribes replied that they would surely accompany their brethren into the Land of Israel and not return to the East Bank until all is settled in Eretz Yisrael.[SDT] In addition to the main “dressing down” that Moshe gives Reuven and Gad, there is a more subtle rebuke on another issue. The tribes offer to build corrals for their flocks and homes for their children. Later, when Moshe gives them permission to establish themselves on the east bank, he tells tham to build homes for their children and accommodations for their animals. Your children go first. Then your property.
R’VI’I – Fourth Aliya – 23+10+39 p’sukim (30:2-31:12)
The fourth Aliya is always the BRIDGE Aliya between two sedras when they are combined. This one is THE longest Aliya in the Torah.
Moshe’s response is the administration of an oath (many details of the proper form of “conditions” are derived from this famous oath of the 2½ tribes) agreeing to the request to settle on the east side of the Jordan if and only if the 2½ tribes fight side by side with the others.
The Torah describes the cities that the 2½ tribes established to settle their families and flocks prior to their crossing the Jordan.
The sedra of Mas’ei begins with a summary listing of the 42 places of encampment during the years of wandering in the Wilderness. Most places are just listed; a few are anecdoted. The present day identity of many of these places is in dispute.
This portion covers the Exodus from Egypt (the city of Ra’m’ses), the passage thru the Sea, and the 3-day journey that brought the People to Mara, with its “water problem” (and solution). From there it was back to
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These are the places of encampment and some comments…
From Ra’m’ses to Sukkot to Eitam to Pi HaChirot to Mara to Eilim to Yam Suf to Midbar Sin to Dafka to Alush to R’fidim to Midbar Sinai to Kivrot HaTaava to Chatzeirot Ritma to Rimon Peretz to Livna to Risa to K’heilata to Har Shefer to Charada to Mak’heilot to Tachat to Terach to Mitka to Chashmona to Moseirot to Bnei Yaakan to ChorHaGidgad to Yotvata to Avrona to Etzion Gever to Midbar Tzin = Kadesh to Hor HaHar to Tzalmona to Punon to Ovot to Iyei HaAvarim to Divon Gad to Almon Divlatayma to Harei HaAvarim to Arvot Moav
The numeric value of RAAMSES = 200+70+40+ 60+60 = 430, the number of years from the original prophecy to Avraham Avinu in the BRIT BEIN HA’B’TARIM until the EXODUS (as in Sh’mot 12:40-41).
The numeric value of the first stop out of Raamses is SUKKOT = 60+20+400 = 480, the number of years from the Exodus until the building of the First Beit HaMikdash – the arrival of the People EL HAMENUCHA V’EL HANACHALA (D’varim 12:9).
So just the first leg of the wandering represents (numerically) the major first (and second) leg of the journey of Jewish History.
The Midrash says that it was at ALUSH that the People first received the Manna and where we spent our very first Shabbat. The Manna was given to the People of Israel in the merit of our mother Sarah, who was asked by Avraham to knead and bake cakes for the angels/guests. Her enthusiastic providing of food for others was repaid by G-d, Who provided food for Sarah’s children more than 400 years later. The name ALUSH is a play on the word “I will knead”.
RITMA was the place from which the spies were sent, and therefore the place where the decree to wander the wilderness was pronounced. One can imagine a qualitative difference in the mental attitude during the first 14 encampments as compared to those following Ritma.
CHASHMONA was the 25th resting place of the People. Centuries later, there was a resting (from battle) on the 25th (of Kislev). The people through whom G-d wrought the miracles of Chanuka were the Chashmona’im. This is considered one of the “hints” to Chanuka from the Torah.
Rashi points out that with 14 places before the decree to wander, and with 8 places in the final year, there were only 20 places that the People moved to and from in 38 years or so. That is not really all that much. G-d was merciful with the People even as He was punishing them.
CHAMISHI – Fifth Aliya – 22 p’sukim (33:50-34:15)
G-d speaks to Moshe in Arvot Moav and commands the People to enter, conquer, acquire, and settle the Land. The boundaries of the Land are detailed. These boundaries are now for the 9½ tribes, since Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe have claimed their allotments on the East Bank.
In G-d’s original promise to Avraham Avinu, the land to be given to his descendants was to be “from the Egyptian River until the great river, P’rat”. The boundaries described in this week’s sedra contain a territory significantly smaller than that which was promised. Our Sages tell us that the original promise includes territory to be added to Eretz Yisrael in the future, in the times of the Moshiach. Rabbi Yaakov Auerbach z”l found a “numeric clue” that supports this notion. In this week’s sedra, the Land to become ours is referred to as ERETZ CANAAN L’G’VULOTE’HA, the Land of Canaan to its boundaries. The G’matriya of this phrase is 961, exactly the number of letters in B’reishit 15 – the portion of the Brit Bein HaB’tarim..
Ramban sites these p’sukim as the source of the mitzva in the Torah to dwell in Israel – a mitzva that he says applies today, even in times of exile. The Ramban counts this mitzva as one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.
The Rambam does not. This does not mean that the Rambam does not consider it a mitzva to live in Eretz Yisrael. He echoes the Talmud in saying that “a person should always choose to live in Israel, even in a city with a majority of idol worshippers, rather than live outside of Israel, even in a predominantly Jewish city”. He writes that a person who lives elsewhere is like one who has no G-d. Some commentaries explain that since living in Eretz Yisrael is the necessary basis of fulfilling a whole category of mitzvot, then one would not count living in Israel as one of the 613. It includes many other mitzvot; therefore it does not fulfill the specific criteria for being numbered among Taryag. It is, nonetheless, an imperative of the Torah.
The Ramban adds that not only are there mitzvot that “depend upon the Land”, but ALL mitzvot are fully able to be fulfilled ONLY in Eretz Yisrael. One must do mitzvot elsewhere, primarily as practice to the proper per formance of mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael.
Whichever way you look at living in Israel, it is a very significant mitzva that requires very serious consideration.
SHISHI – Sixth Aliya – 14+8 p’sukim (34:16-35:8)
Next the Torah lists the new leaders of the tribes who will be in charge of the “Divine lottery” by which the Land will be apportioned.
Note that the first 3 tribes mentioned do not have the word NASI (leader) mentioned – the others all do. One commentary suggests that it was unnecessary to identify Calev b. Yefuneh as a leader – that is well- known. The tribe of Shimon does not deserve to have a leader with the title NASI because of the Zimri affair. Binyamin’s leader was Eldad (here called Elidad – according to the Baal HaTurim, the extra YUD represents Prophecy, which has 10 different names), a person who already had the higher title of Prophet.
Following the general plans for dividing the Land, the People are instructed to provide cities for the Levi’im , since they (the Leviim) do not receive Land as inheritance. The cities and their surrounding areas number 48, including the 6 cities of refuge. Note that the measure of 2000 amot as “city limit” was subsequently borrowed by the Sages in fixing the distance outside the dwelling place that a person may walk on Shabbat, known as T’CHUM SHABBAT.
These cities, to be given by the tribes to the Leviyim, were given proportional to the populations of the tribes.
SH’VI’I – Seventh Aliya – 26+13 p’sukim (35:9-36:13)
The cities of refuge (and the other 42 Levite cities, with some differences) serve to protect the inadvertent killer. Even a murderer flees to a protecting city pending trial. It is forbidden to kill a murderer until he stands trial and is found guilty . The inadvertent killer is sent – or he flees – to a city of refuge . The Torah presents guidelines for defining murder and inadvertent killing and sets down some of the court procedures, such as the prohibition of a witness also acting as judge in a criminal case . We are also warned not to permit substitute punishments for a murderer  and the inadvertent killer . Strict adherence to all rules of justice assure us continued “quality living” in Eretz Yisrael, accompanied by the Divine Presence.
Leaders of the family of Menashe to which the daughters of Zelofchad belong, approach Moshe and raise the problem of potential erosion of their tribal allotment if Zelofchad’s daughters marry outside their tribe, taking their land with them. Moshe issues a ruling restricting them from marrying outside their tribe. This is not a law in perpetuity; it applies only in this case. In compliance, Machla, Tirza, Chogla, Milka, and No’a marry Menashe-ites. Thus ends BaMidbar.
Haftara – 28 p’sukim – Yirmiyahu 2:4-28, 3:4, (4:1-2)
This is the second of the three Tragic Haftaras read between the 17th of Tammuz and Tish’a b’Av. It is the continuation of last week’s haftara. In fact, these two haftaras are the only continuous portions of the Prophets read as haftaras on consecutive weeks.
G-d, speaking through the prophet, chastises the People of Israel for the terrible double sin of forsaking Him AND turning to gods who are nothingness. Repeatedly, we are asked how it was possible that we turned away from G-d so. Terrible punishment for this abandonment of G-d is prophesied.
The haftara ends on the hopeful note that if we return to G-d, then He will return to us and restore His special relationship with us.