“But how can I go to study Torah?” cried Akiva. “I’m 40 years old and haven’t even learned the Aleph Bet! Are you suggesting that I sit in kindergarten with all the little children, on those tiny chairs, and learn the Aleph Bet? Have you no consideration for my dignity?”
Akiva was the chief shepherd of Mr. Ben Kalba Savua – literally “Satiated Dog,” so called because everyone who came to him hungry as a dog left feeling satiated.
Rachel, the beautiful daughter of his boss, replied, “Akiva, I see great potential in you. I am 100 percent certain that if you put your mind to study Torah, you will become a great scholar and leader. You will accomplish great things for the Jewish people. Otherwise you will just waste all of your potential and die as an old shepherd dies! If you agree to go study, I will gladly become your wife, and I would be willing to wait for you for many years! Please listen to me, Akiva!”
Akiva was too proud to give in. That day, as he was taking his flock to a brook to drink, he noticed something strange. There was a great boulder in the brook that had a hole bored through it by the water. He told himself: “If water is so soft, yet continuous dripping can make a hole in the hard rock, then Torah, which is like a fire (Aish HaTorah!) can certainly make an impression on my soft heart!”
When they married, Rachel’s father was angry that she married an ignoramus, and vowed to disown her from all of his possessions. At this point, at Rachel’s insistence, Akiva left his wife in dire poverty and went to study Torah. After 12 years he had 12,000 students under his tutelage. Rachel urged upon him another 12 years.
When Akiva finally returned home triumphantly with 24,000 students, the entire town came out to greet him. Rachel pushed her way to the front. But the students, not knowing her identity, tried to remove her. But Rabbi Akiva turned to his students and proclaimed: “All of my Torah and all of your Torah is in her merit!”
When rich Mr. Savua heard that a great scholar was in town, he went to ask him to annul his vow which forbade his daughter from receiving anything from him. “For 24 years my daughter has been living in dire poverty. Her husband left her and hasn’t returned. I would like to remove my vow.”
The “rabbi” inquired, “Had you known that your son-in-law would become a scholar, would you have made the vow?”
“No! No!” exclaimed the rich man, “Even had he known Aleph Bet I would not have vowed.”
Concluded the “rabbi,” “Your vow is removed. I am your son-in-law!” (Talmud)
The commentary of Tosfot asks: How did Rabbi Akiva remove the vow using information non-existent at the time of the vow? Tosfot replies that since Savua knew that Akiva was going to study in Yeshiva, he should have known that the normal manner of those who go to study is to become great scholars!
This week’s double portion Matot-Masey begins with the laws of vows and how to remove them. The narrative of the desert years continues with the battle with Midian, the request of the tribes of Gad and Reuven to inherit land on the eastern banks of the Jordan, and finally a detailed account of all the traveling stops for 40 years and a list of the official borders of Israel.
VOWS AND OATHS
A person’s word is sacred and forbidden to desecrate. There are two forms of this prohibition. One can take an oath, which focuses on the person. Making an oath is taking the Almighty as a witness that what I say is true. Or one can make a vow, which is centered on an object. This creates the spiritual reality of a severe prohibition. In fact, the first prayer the Jewish people recite on Yom Kippur is “Kol Nidrei” which is the annulment of our vows so we should not break them.
ANNULMENT OF VOWS
The normal process of annulment is to reveal one’s vows to a court of 3 laymen or one great scholar. The court then proceeds to find an “opening for regret,” meaning: “If you would have known this, you would not have vowed.” Under certain specific conditions, a parent or spouse is also able to remove vows. This power is limited to the same day that they heard of the vow, regardless of when the vow was made.
What if someone made a vow, and then a parent or spouse removed it without their knowledge. Then they violated the vow. The Torah says that God will forgive her because the vow was removed. The Sages point out that in spite of the fact that there was actually no sin – because there was no vow – this still requires atonement for bad intentions. How much more so one who actually sins requires atonement!
WAR WITH MIDIAN
God commanded the Israelites to attack Midian for having caused the Jews to sin with Midian’s daughters.
Question: Why not attack Moab who started the whole thing?
Answer: Midian was considered worse because they did not have any need to feel territorially threatened like Moab, and they sent their princess as a sign of their hatred. Also God wanted to preserve Moab because in the future Ruth, the great convert, would come from them – and from her King David would be descended.
An important aspect of Jewish warfare is that we fight a battle along with the Almighty. In Midian, the Jewish soldiers realized they had fought a tremendous battle without one casualty, so they donated gold booty to the Sanctuary in gratitude.
During the 1983 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air force was given the mission to bomb the Syrian S.A.M. (surface to air missiles) in Lebanon. The squadron leader was recently religious and insisted that before going into battle, they should request that a great Yeshiva pray for them. He personally went to a great Torah sage for his blessings, and the result was that this squadron knocked out every S.A.M. and didn’t lose one plane.
TRIBES OF GAD AND REUVEN
The tribes of Gad and Reuven had a request from Moses. Since they owned vast herds of sheep and cattle, they needed abundant pastureland. The land of Sichon and Og, east of the Jordan River, had good pastureland, so these two tribes wanted to remain there, not entering Israel proper.
At first Moses thought they were afraid to fight, and would demoralize the other tribes – a repetition of the sin of the spies 40 years earlier which had had dire consequences. The tribes replied that they were not afraid to fight, and would actually volunteer to be the vanguard in front of their brothers until they liberated the entire land from the Canaanites.
The tribes accepted and said: “We will build sheds for our livestock and cities for our children and go in the frontline before the people until they inherit the land.” Moses changed their words somewhat: “Build cities for your children and sheds for your livestock, and cross the Jordan before God and the land will be conquered before God” – then you will receive your portion on the eastern side of the Jordan. (See Numbers 32:16.)
Question: Why did Moses change their words?
Answer: They put their livestock (money) before their families (quality time!), so Moses had to correct them on two points. First of all, get your priorities straight and worry about your children first. Second of all, realize you are fighting before God and He will win the war for you. With this Moses blessed them that they should all return and find their families well. This is the classic case of a double-sided condition – a condition that serves as the basis for all business conditions in Jewish law.
THE MOTIVATION OF GAD AND REUVEN
These two tribes felt they were not on the spiritual level to live in the Land of Israel. The proof being that they cared more for their livestock than their children. This was similar to the spies who felt likewise. (Klausenberger Rebbe)
Moses added half the tribe of Menashe, in order to keep them connected to the mainland as they kept contact with their other half. It is dangerous to be separated from the mainstream of the Jewish people. The tribe of Menashe (from Joseph, who grew up in Egypt) was accustomed to maintaining their ways under adversarial conditions. (Netziv)
However, the real underlying motivation of Gad and Reuven is revealed by the Torah in Deut. 33:21. They wanted to be near the tomb of Moses.
Eventually these tribes became denigrated and were the first to be exiled with the 10 tribes. When the resurrection of the dead comes, Moses will lead them into the land with all those who died in the desert. (Midrash)
The Parsha lists all 42 camps the Jewish people made during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. 14 of these camps were in the first year and 8 in the last, leaving 20 camps in 38 years (an average of 2 years in each place). Later on we learn that they spent 19 years in one place, Kodaish. This means they traveled to 19 places in 19 years – an average of one year in each place.
The commentaries point out the importance of this information. Mainly, so we shouldn’t think they were always traveling with no time to rest. In addition, this is a challenge to would-be archeologists. Go find these places! If you succeed, you will find they are desolate, out-of-the way places – as compared to the Bedouins who always stay near supply routes.
DESTROY THE IDOLATERS
The Israelites are commanded to uproot idolatry from the land. Non-Jews who accept one God are allowed to live in the land. God warned that if the commandment of destroying idolaters was not carried out, the idolaters would be “thorns in your side” and you will learn from them, and then it will be you who will be evicted from the land (see Num.34:55, 56).
Historically, the Jews were unable to uproot them all, and the remaining idolaters drew the Jews into idol worship, and this prophecy was fulfilled in its entirety.
BORDERS OF THE LAND
The Torah describes the exact measurements of the borders of Israel. It is important to know where to apply the special mitzvot of Israel (primarily agricultural ones) and where not.
The tribe of Levi received cities to dwell in which were scattered throughout the land. One function of these cities were “cities of refuge” for someone who committed unintended manslaughter. This is the first example of rehabilitation of criminals. Instead of sending them to prison to be among bigger criminals and to become worse, we send them to the cities of the scholars and teachers of Israel. When they leave the cities (upon the death of the High Priest), these “criminals” are more righteous then when they entered.
THE MARRIAGE OF THE DAUGHTERS OF TZLAFCHAD
The tribe of Menashe complained, “since a woman is inherited by her husband or sons, if the daughters of Tzlafchad married into another tribe, they would transfer the land of Menashe to another tribe!”
Moses proclaimed that they would have to marry into their own tribe. “Marry whomever you please, as long as you please to marry someone from your own tribe.” This only applied to the generation that entered and conquered the land. All other generations could marry into other tribes – even if that meant transfer by marriage of inheritance land.
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