Community > Jewish Life > Matot and Masei

Matot and Masei

Matot: The lesson of Balaam’s End and
Masei: The Commandment to Settle (in) Eretz Israel

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

Behold, these caused the children of Israel Through the counsel of Balaam,
To revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor…

This is the first occasion on which the Torah names Balaam as the instigator of the plot to lead the Israelites into sin at Baal Peor. During the whole of the Scriptural account of the deed in the previous chapters, no mention is made of Balaam’s connivance at the deed. On the contrary:

And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. (25:1)

We noted how the Almighty vented His wrath on the Israelites for their backsliding and how He commanded them to harass the Midianites for their complicity in the deed of “the matter of Peor.” But Balaam’s share is not alluded to. Luzzatto comments as follows on this omission:

On his way home Balaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had committed harlotry with the daughters of Moab and had thereby been led into idolatry. He then realized that this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He therefore advised the Midianites to send their choicest maidens to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. In this way they would forfeit the Almighty’s protection.

The question why Balaam’s share in the matter of Peor is not immediately recorded still remains to be answered. As we have noted on other occasions, the Torah often omits in one part of the narrative important details, only to allude to them, at a later stage. Our Sages referred to this phenomenon in the following phrase:

The scriptures record matters briefly in their original context only to elaborate at greater length elsewhere. (Literally: “The words of the Torah are poor in their place and rich elsewhere.”)

Here we shall select two other examples of this from the many that abound in Scriptures. In the story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31, 36-42), the former only details the conditions under which he worked and refers to Laban’s exploitation of his devotion at the very end. During the whole time that Jacob worked for Laban described in chapters 29 and 30, the narrative makes no mention of the conditions under which Jacob worked and how Laban changed his wages ten times. Only when Jacob had left Padan Aram and Laban catches up with him, are we treated to a graphic description of those conditions, in Jacob’s outburst of righteous indignation (ibid. 31, 36-42). These details fill in what was lacking in our previous vague picture of Jacob’s relations with Laban.

Another instance is afforded us in 1 Samuel 28:3. Only in the part of the narrative where King Saul stands helpless and “the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams…” and he turns to the witch, are we told of his earlier struggle to destroy the sorcerers and soothsayers in Israel (ibid. 28,9).

Nahmanides refers to this literary device in Genesis 31:7:

“Your father hath mocked me, and changed my wages … ” – this was literally true, though the narrative makes no mention of this in the Torah … Scripture is often brief in one context only to elaborate in another.

But why did the torah omit details in one context only to put them in later?

The explanation in the two examples we quote above is not hard to discover. The narrative is silent so long as Jacob himself was silent and controlled his indignation, all the time he worked for Laban. But after 20 years of exploitation, Jacob gave vent to all that he kept within him during that time. Had these details been coldly reported to us in their strict chronological order, would they have touched the deepest chords of our feelings in the same way? Similarly in the case of Saul, had the narrative first described to us the king’s struggle to wipe out the soothsayers at a time when he had assumed kingship and was carrying out the will of God, it would have borne no special significance for us. He was after all, merely carrying out the command of the Torah. It is only when King Saul himself has to go and consult one of them, that the point is driven home how low he had been brought and how deeply he had been humiliated.

Now let us try to understand why the Torah deferred mentioning Balaam’s complicity in the matter of Peor till after his death at the hands of the Israelites, described in this sidra. Why was not Balaam’s responsibility for the matter of Peor recorded in the context of that story?

Evidently, the Torah wished to teach us a special lesson.

Though it was Balaam who instigated the daughters of Midian to strike a blow at the purity of Jewish family life, though he was the evil genius who thought out the plan, the moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Israelites themselves. They were guilty:

And the people began to commit harlotry. (25:1)

The narrative only recorded the sin of the Israelites and their retribution of his own acts. Provocation does not free the victim of responsibility.

The words of the Master (God) and the words of the disciple – whose word must we obey?

Man’s first loyalty is to the moral law, to God. But that does not imply that the provoker to immorality, the misleader is free from responsibility. When therefore the retribution that overcame Balaam is alluded to – when he was slain in battle by the Israelites:

Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with sword. (31:8)
–his complicity in the sin of the Israelites is also referred to:

Behold, these caused the children of Israel,
Through the counsel of Balaam,
To revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor… (31:16)


And the lord spoke unto Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying:

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them:

When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, And destroy all their figured stones, And destroy all their molten images, And demolish all their high places.

And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, And dwell therein; For unto you have I given the land to possess it. (33:50-53)

The passage beginning with the phrase: “When ye pass over the Jordan …” belongs to a class of Biblical statements which occurs quite frequently elsewhere, particularly, in the book of Deuteronomy. They are all distinguished by making the observance of the precept enunciated therein dependent on the children of Israel entering the Holy Land. Thus we have: “When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee …” (Deuteronomy 17, 14; 26, 1); “And it shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land wither thou goest to possess it” (ibid. 11:29). In Leviticus too (19:23) we have: “And when ye shall come into the land.”

In cases such as these it is not always clear where the conditional clause “when ye come …” ends, and where the main clause, setting forth the commandment which applies on entering the land, begins. The reason for this is a grammatical ambiguity peculiar to the Hebrew language in the use of vav joining the clauses together. It may mark merely a continuation of the conditional clause; “If or when this happens and also this, then …” or the beginning of the main or operational clause implying: “If or when this happens, then observe such and such a command”. In our context it will become clear, after closer study, that the conditional clause finishes with verse 51 (with the words: “to the land of Canaan”) and the command which the Israelites are called upon to observe begins with the phrase: “then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you.”

Twice in the verse with which we introduced the chapter the expression: ve-horashtem “And thou shalt possess them” occurs. From a superficial glance, it would seem that verse 53 is merely a repetition of verse 52. But as several commentators have pointed out this is not so. In 52 it is stated: “thou shalt dispossess the inhabitants of the land”. Whereas in 53, it is stated: “Ye shall possess the land and dwell therein”. Rashi takes the second vehorashtem to imply a precondition for their subsequent settlement rather than an outright command:

“Ye shall possess the land” – take possession of it from its inhabitants, then “ye may dwell therein” – safely exist there. Otherwise ye shall not be able to exist there.

The two verse do not then duplicate each other, repeating the order to inherit or occupy the land by dispossessing the inhabitants. The second verse adds the warning that if the Israelites do not dispossess the inhabitants first, they will never succeed in maintaining themselves in the country safely. Nahmanides interprets the verse differently:

In my opinion, this constitutes a positive command of the Torah wherein He commanded them to settle in the land, and inherit it; for He gave it them; and they should not reject the heritage of the Lord! Should it enter their mind, for instance, to go and conquer the land of Shinar (Babylon) or Assyria or any other country and settle therein, then they would have transgressed a commandment of the Lord.

Ve-horashtem does not imply, therefore, “dispossession” of the indigent inhabitants, as Rashi explains, but rather the “inheritance” of one’s patrimony. The emphasis is not on securing themselves in the country but rather on the taking up of the Divinely granted heritage of the Lord”. Just the same as a Jew is not morally free to do what he likes with his own life but has a duty to preserve it, so he cannot live where he likes. But the place where he should spend his divinely granted gift of life is prescribed for him. Should a Jew say, “Shinar” or “Assyria” and not the Land promised and destined for his people he is violating the Divine will.

Nahmanides outlines the duty of settling Eretz Yisrael at greater length in his strictures on Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-mizvot (Book of Divine precepts) which are devoted to explaining the points on which he differs from the latter in his method of numbering the 613 precepts of Judaism. In this case, Nahmanides takes Maimonides to task for his not including the duty to settle Eretz Yisrael as a separate mitzvah. Maimonides dwells at length in many parts of his works on the paramount and indispensable importance of Eretz Yisrael, in the perspective of Judaism, but does not specify its settlement as one of the 613 precepts referred to in the Torah.

But here are the words of Nahmanides:

We have been commanded in the Torah to take possession of the land which the Lord, Blessed be He granted to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not to leave it in the hands of others or allow it to remain desolate, as it is stated, “Thou shalt possess the land and dwell therein, for to you have I given the land and you shall inherit the land which I swore to your fathers”. The exact boundaries of the territory covered by this religious obligation are delineated for us in the Torah (Deuteronomy 1:7). A proof that this is a special mizvah can be adduced from the Almighty’s order to the spies, “Go up and possess it, as the Lord hath spoken to you, fear not and be not dismayed” (Ibid. 1:21) … And when they refused to go up, it is written, “And you rebelled against the word of the Lord … ” This indicates that we are dealing with a specific precept and not merely a promise.

I consider that the hyperbolic statements of our Sages regarding the greatness of the mizvah of residing in the Holy Land proceeded from their concern to carry out this explicit command of the Torah. They stated, for instance, that he who leaves Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora shall be in thine eyes as him that committed idolatry as it is written: “For they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying: Go, serve other gods” (1 Samuel 26,19).

The mitzvah applies for all time, even during exile, as it is evident from many places in the Talmud. Compare the Sifrei: “It happened that Rabbi Judah be Batira and R. Matya ben Harash and R. Hanina the nephew of R. Joshua and R. Yohanan were journeying to the Diaspora. On reaching Palatium (a place outside Eretz Yisrael) they recalled Eretz Israel and their eyes filled with tears and they rent their garments and applied to themselves the following verse: “Thou shalt possess them and dwell in their land”, whereupon they retraced their steps and went back home, saying: The residence in Eretz Yisrael is equal in weight to all the mitzvot in the Torah”.

We may appreciate the force of the last mentioned rabbinic statement as well as the other sentiments, if we bear in mind that there can be no complete observance, in all spheres of life, of the precepts of the Torah, except in Eretz Yisrael . That is why King David is held to have implied that his expulsion from the Holy Land by Saul was tantamount to telling him to go and worship idols:

At all times should a man reside in Eretz Israel, even in a city inhabited mostly by heathens. Let him not reside outside the Land, even in a city inhabited by Jews. Since whoever resides in Eretz Yisrael is like to him who has a god, whilst whoever resides outside it is like him who has no god, as it is stated (Leviticus 25, 38): “To give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. “Do you mean to say that whoever does not reside in the land of Israel has no god?! But what is meant is – Whoever resides outside the land is as if he worships idols. David said so too: “For they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord (i.e. in Eretz Yisrael, from where he fled from the anger of Saul), saying go, serve other gods” (1 Samuel 26:19). But whoever told David to go serve other gods? But this teaches you that whoever resides outside the Land of Israel is as if he served idols. (Ketubot 110b)

In other words, the Torah cannot be observed in its entirety except in a society wholly governed by its precepts and not in an alien framework ruled by other ideals. Admittedly there are personal religious obligations that can be observed anywhere, even by a Jewish Robinson Crusoe on his desert isle, but the Torah, as a whole, implies a complete social order, a judiciary, national economic and political life. That can only be achieved in the Holy Land and not outside it.

The precept enjoining us to occupy Eretz Israel and make it our permanent home:

“Ye shall possess the land and dwell therein”, is motivated by one good reason – For unto you have I given the land to possess it. (35:53)

It is above assumption which Rashi utilizes in his celebrated first comment to the Pentateuch, in explaining why it begins with the story of Genesis:

Should the nations of the world say: Ye are robbers in occupying the land belonging to the seven nations, Israel replies: The whole world belongs to the holy One Blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomsoever he desired. In accordance with His will He gave it to them (the seven nations), originally, and in accordance with His will He took it from them and gave it to us.

This was the sole reason for our title to the Land. The Almighty ordered us to take possession of it. In the whole book of Genesis no mention is made of the good properties of the land, that it flowed with milk or honey. On the contrary, we are told, on many occasions, that there was a famine in the land. The Patriarchs’ loyalty to it was tested. Abraham returned to it after leaving it in time of famine and Isaac was not permitted to forsake it, even in time of famine. The reason that is given is simply:

For unto thee, and not thy seed, I will give all these lands.

It is the Almighty who determines the boundaries of nations. He allotted Israel its place in the world just the same as He did for other peoples:

Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt,
And the Philistines from Caphtor,
And Aram from Kir? (Amos 9:7)

What then is the difference between Israel’s relationship to its homeland and that of other nations to theirs? The difference is just this. Israel is aware that this land was granted it by the Almighty. This is not just a matter of history but involves for Israel a moral obligation, the responsibility to observe a particular way of life in that land. According to Nahmanides, the Israelites were specifically commanded to take possession of Eretz Israel and live there to fulfill their religious mission.

This perhaps is the implication of that strange statement in the Midrash regarding the Almighty’s words to Jacob, ordering the Patriarch to return to his homeland, after twenty years of exile and servitude in Laban’s house:

“Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee” (Genesis 31:3) – Your father is waiting for you, your mother is waiting for you – I myself am waiting for you. (Bereshit Rabba 77)

Nahmanides also emphasises that just as it is obligatory to wrest the land from the peoples who defiled it with their evil deeds and not to emigrate therefrom, so it is equally important not to leave the land desolate.

We should not leave it in the hands of others or allow it to remain desolate.

This task of conquering and taming the desert on God’s earth had already been implied in the first command given to man “Fill the earth and conquer it” (Genesis 1:22) on which Nahmanides comments:

He granted man power and government in the land to do as he wished…to build, uproot, plant and mine metal from its hills.

The picture is however not complete without referring to its other side. Just as the former inhabitants of the land had been expelled for their misdeeds so would “God’s own country” vomit the Israelites, should they contaminate it with their practices. The divine gift of the land was not unconditional but, as stated at the end of our sidra (35:33-34):

So shall ye not pollute the land wherein ye are, defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell; for I, the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.