Mattot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42)

We are getting closer to the end of the Israelites’ journey and are in tying-up-loose-ends mode.  This portion contains three chapters of Numbers: Ch.30 (all but one verse), Ch. 31, and Ch.32.  First, we read instructions regarding vows and how they can be annulled.  For men, this is simple, for women, as usual more detailed and complex.  You get the feeling there was a lot of head scratching as to what to do here, since 1) it concerns women and 2) the degree of authority a man has over a woman varies depending on whether she is still with her father, married, divorced, or widowed.  The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud tractate Nedarim 89a&b) considers additional wrinkles (there are always additional wrinkles), such as the vows of one who is unmarried and at least 12.5 years and one day old, the effects of betrothal, what happens when there is a change in status between taking a vow and when it is to be fulfilled.

Next, the Israelites are commanded to carry out a brutal war against the Midianites (Numbers 31:2) to avenge the incident of Baal Peor (Numbers 25:1-9).  But why?  Wasn’t it mainly the Moabite women who seduced the Israelites?  True, the princess whom Pinchas speared was a Midianite.  Rashi’s opinion is that the Moabites were genuinely frightened of being conquered by the Israelites (whence Balak’s deal with Bil’am), while Midian was taking advantage of a situation that really didn’t concern them.  Moses does not hesitate, even though the Lord tells him he will die afterward.

The final section also concerns war, though more obliquely.  The tribes of Gad and Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh decide they and their flocks would be better off staying east of the Jordan, where land was especially good for grazing, than crossing the river into the Promised Land.  Moses grants their request, on condition that they not only help conquer the land, but lead the fight in the front lines, and they agree.  Usually when I read this section my reaction is: Are they nuts?  After 40 years’ wandering?  And how must Moses feel at their throwing away what he wants so much and can’t have?  And there’s a concern among the commentators that these ranchers show more care for their possessions than for their families and Israel.  But this year I came across a d’var Torah with a different angle.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks holds up Chapter 32 as a model of conflict resolution à la Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In  

  1. Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain. 
  4.  Insist on objective criteria. 

The issue comes up again in Joshua 22 and is similarly settled in a genteel manner.  Certainly negotiating is better than the more usual ways of resolving Israelite conflict by whining, war, and/or plague.

With the 17th of Tammuz fast this past week, we entered the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av.  Therefore, this week we also read the first of the three Haftarot of Rebuke (or Warning) Jeremiah 1:1-2.  This is Jeremiah’s call to prophecy, and he’s a reluctant prophet, not unlike Moses.  Verse 2:2 is one of my favorites, and it’s used in the High Holy Days liturgy: “I remember for you the kindness of your youth, the love when you were a bride, how you followed me into the wilderness, into a land unsown.”

Shabbat shalom,

Steve Martin’s Non-Conformist Oath   Posted by: Mike Whitmore | May 28, 2010

STEVE MARTIN: Let’s repeat the Non-Conformist Oath. I promise to be different!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be different.
STEVE MARTIN: I promise to be unique.
AUDIENCE: I promise to be unique.
STEVE MARTIN: I promise not to repeat things other people say.
AUDIENCE: I promise … [Dissolves into nervous laughter.]


 tph swearing-in-flub--tt090122


There’s conflict resolution, and there’s conflict resolution…

tph Direct Conflict Resolution


Settling a cow case (from 2011)

A big-city lawyer was representing the railroad in a lawsuit filed by an old rancher. The rancher’s prize bull was missing from the section through which the railroad passed. The rancher only wanted to be paid the fair value of the bull. The case was scheduled to be tried before the justice of the peace in the back room of the general store. The attorney for the railroad immediately cornered the rancher and tried to get him to settle out of court. The lawyer did his best selling job, and finally the rancher agreed to take half of what he was asking. After the rancher had signed the release and took the check, the young lawyer couldn’t resist gloating a little over his success, telling the rancher, “You know, I hate to tell you this, old man, but I put one over on you in there. I couldn’t have won the case. The engineer was asleep and the fireman was in the caboose when the train went through your ranch that morning. I didn’t have one witness to put on the stand. I bluffed you!” The old rancher replied, “Well, I’ll tell you, young feller, I was a little worried about winning that case myself, because that durned bull came home this morning.”


Not So Fast

An Oklahoma rancher and a Texas rancher were discussing their spreads. The Oklahoma rancher said, “From my front porch my land goes as far as the eye can see and a little bit farther.”
The Texan nodded. “That’s mighty impressive.” He said, then continued, “Well sir, I can get up at five o’clock in the mornin’, hop in my pickup truck and drive all day and not reach the end of my land before dark.”
The Oklahoma rancher nodded in return. “Yeah…, I had a truck like that once, but I finally got rid of the damn thing.”


Soldier’s diary of the First World War (abridged)
Capt Alexander Stewart’s diary spans his two years on the WWI front line
12:01AM GMT 08 Nov 2007

tph Capt Stewart WWI

The harrowing but humorous memoir of a British Army officer who survived the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War has been published for the first time.

Capt Alexander Stewart’s handwritten diary describes the grim reality of the Somme and other battles with a wry sense of humour.

Capt Stewart started the war diary in 1915 when he was sent to France and then Belgium with the 3rd Scottish Rifles. He was finally sent home in 1917.

Capt Stewart then went on to hand-type his war memoir – entitled The Experiences of a Very Unimportant Officer – which he completed in 1928, giving three copies to his family. It had been forgotten until his grandson, Jaime Stewart, found a copy gathering dust on a shelf and realised the account was a historical gem that needed to be published.

Capt Stewart spoke little of his experiences before his death in 1964, at the age of 88.  His son, Thomas Stewart, 84, said: “He wanted to record what it was like, and he wrote well. For many years after the war he would wake up screaming in the night, but he never talked about it.”

Other extracts from Capt Alexander Stewart’s war memoir include:

Nov 9, 1916: “I am very much annoyed by memos sent round from Headquarters that come in at all hours of the day and night; they stop me getting a full night’s rest and some of them are very silly and quite unnecessary. When I am very tired and just getting off to sleep with cold feet, in comes an orderly with a chit asking how many pairs of socks my company had a week ago; I reply 141 and a half. “I then go to sleep; back comes a memo: ‘please explain at once how you come to be deficient of one sock’. I reply ‘man lost his leg’. That’s how we make the Huns sit up.”

Oct 29, 1917: “It was madness to attempt the attack.”It could only have been instigated by a higher command that had simply looked at a map, put down a finger and said: ‘We will attack there’.”

• The 260-page memoir, The Experiences of a Very Unimportant Officer, is available to download from, price £9.95.

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