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Warriors and Wanderers: Lessons from Mattot Massei

Parashah Mattot Massei

D’var Torah July 30, 2022

In the diaspora this past Shabbat, we read both Parashah Mattot and Parashah Massei, and are now back in sync with the folks in Israel who read Massei alone.  This is a slightly extended and polished version of the d’var I delivered this past Shabbat morning at Kehillat Beth Israel Ottawa.

Shabbat Shalom!

This week’s parashah, Mattot-Massei brings us to the end of the Torah’s account of Israel’s journey in the wilderness.  As it ends, we find the Israelite people sitting on the east bank of the Jordan, across from Jericho, ready to begin the conquest of the promised land.  Living here in Ottawa, many of us have enjoyed the blessings of peace and security for many decades.  We, or our ancestors came here escaping persecution and seeking security and we have lived here in relative comfort.  For many of us this has been the land of economic opportunity and welcoming neighbours.  As I studied this week’s torah reading, I thought about the message the Parashah has for us, and what struck me is that it reminds us that our ancestors were warriors and wanderers.

The Parashah begins with God’s instruction to Moshe to avenge the dishonour done to his name by the Midianites who seduced the children of Israel to idol worship.  Obedient to God’s instructions, the people wage war on the Midianites.  Our ancestors were warriors.

Moshe is approached by the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Menasheh.  They seek Moses’ permission to settle in the territory of Gilead, which lies east of the Jordan outside the boundaries of the promised land.  This territory has been seized in battle against Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan.

Moshe is suspicious of them and asks, “Will you let the rest of Israel fight for the promised land without you?”  He reminds them that as a result of the unwillingness of the previous generation to fight, the people were condemned by God to wander for forty years and to die in the wilderness.  The leaders of the three tribes assure Moshe that they will do their part in the fighting and will even take the most dangerous roles in the vanguard of the army, if they are granted the right to settle in Gilead.  We see that an unwillingness to fight turned our people into wanderers for a generation.

The text recaps the entire forty year journey of the Israelites in the wilderness from the departure from Egypt to the arrival on the banks of the Jordan.  Our ancestors were wanderers.

And it is impossible to ignore that, even as we read that the people are finally ready to begin conquering the land that has been promised them by God, we ourselves, are only a week away from Tisha B’av, when we sorrowfully recall that after conquering the land and living in it, we later lost the land, not once but twice.  We are reminded that although we live in peace and security, that peace and security is not guaranteed to us.

Our ancestors were wanderers.  When the first temple was destroyed, they were exiled to Babylon and in the centuries that followed they found a way to preserve their ways. Their descendants wrote the Talmud which is the document that lays out the details of how to live a Jewish life, how to pray, how to observe the festivals and the customs that we follow to this day.

Our ancestors were warriors and wanderers.  In the land of Israel, they rose up against the Romans in the first century and again in the second century.  They were driven out of the land and spread far and wide, to Ashkenaz, the German speaking lands, to Spain, Greece and Italy, to North Africa, to Babylon and Arabia.

When the crusaders passed through Ashkenaz in the 11th century, the Jewish people were uprooted again and pushed eastward into the lands that would later be Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia.  When Salah’Adin retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders he had the support of an army of Jews who were living in the Galilee.  In return they were granted the right to live and worship in Jerusalem for a time.  Our ancestors were warriors.

In our own time we know that our people have again been uprooted.  Our own forebears fled Europe and North Africa, Turkey and Iraq and the other places of exile, where communities of Jews lived for a thousand years and longer, but live there no more.

And of course, to our great wonder, in that same era our grandparents again went to war and took back the promised land after two thousand years of exile.  Today many of us have family members who live there and serve in the IDF.  Almost half the Jewish people now live in the land of Israel.  While we live here in Ottawa, in peace and prosperity our people are still warriors and wanderers.

May it be God’s will that we will live for a long time to come in peace and security in this land which welcomed our ancestors, and that our children and our children’s children will continue to be welcomed and to prosper here.  And may we also be granted the wisdom to know when it is time again to be warriors and wanderers.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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