August has begun, and today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the month of Av. Usually, both occasions made me a bit glum, especially the August part. Summer was coming to an end and either I didn’t feel ready to face all the activity of the fall, or I felt I had accomplished nothing I’d wanted to, or both. That started to change as the kids finished school, I discovered Summer Under the Stars on Turner Classic Movies (yesterday was Fay Wray day, today Karl Malden), and I retired (Yay!). Although Av is still a downer, as we commemorate various disasters that before the Jewish people over the millennia, August now feels more like a time to tie up loose ends and get ready for a new year. And that’s exactly what we do in this week’s Torah portion (how’s that for a segue?).
Mattot-Mase’ei is a double portion that ends the book of Numbers. It is also really the end of the story of the wandering of the Israelites, since Deuteronomy is pretty much just a month-long valedictory address by Moses. Mattot (Num. 30:2 – 32:42) starts with a section on vows. If a man makes a vow, he fulfills it. If a woman makes a vow, it’s complicated (sigh). Depending on her age, marital status, and circumstances, her father or husband could be responsible for the fulfillment of the vow or revoke it. However, a widow or divorcee is responsible for her own vow.
Next, a loose end: The Midianites haven’t been punished yet for seducing the Israelites into apostasy, so the Lord commands Moses to wage war on them, after which he will die. This is a nasty war of vengeance, the type of episode bordering on ethnic cleansing (female virgins were allowed to live) that makes readers uncomfortable today.
Then, as Moses contemplates his death outside the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh decide they’d rather not cross the Jordan because the land on this side is really good for their livestock. Moses somehow manages to control his temper and grants their request, along as they provide shock troops for the military campaigns in the Promised Land. They agree.
Mase’ei (Num. 33:1 – 36:13) reviews the travels of the Israelites over the past 40 years, kind of like a parent going through a family photograph album with a now-grown child. Fourteen pairs of verses are traditionally chanted with the melody used in the Song at the Sea. There are 42 encampments listed, some familiar, some unknown. Most of the traveling was done at the beginning and end of the journey: 14 encampments in the first 2 years and 8 after Aaron’s death in the 40th year, leaving 20 in the middle 38 or so years.
Then the borders are set, leaders appointed, and the land apportioned. Forty-eight cities are set aside for the Levites, who have no land. Six of these are cities of refuge, 3 on each side of the Jordan, to protect those who kill unintentionally from their victims’ families.
Finally, the matter of the daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) is re-examined. That’s what happens when you make a law; there are always unforeseen consequences, thus more laws. In this case, the (male) leaders of the family of Gilead (Zelophehad’s grandfather – see 27:1) realize that, if the daughters inherit their father’s hereditary land portion and they marry outside their tribe (Manasseh), that land will be lost to the tribe. Moses decides (this time he doesn’t have to kick it Upstairs) that their claim is just. A woman who inherits must marry within the tribe. And the daughters of Zelophehad obligingly marry their cousins. So ends the Book of Numbers.
The haftarah is the second Haftarah of Rebuke, Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, plus 3:4and/ or 4:1 – 2, those last verses to end on a hopeful note. It picks up where last week’s left off. The people admit their wrongdoing, but there is as yet no sign of repentance. There is only remorse as getting caught.
Next week, a new book, Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as דברים (Devarim, words).
The Parasha On 1 Foot
Reuven/Gad/.5 Menashe: Let’s move to the suburbs
Jews begin tradition of moving to the suburbs
Jews: Are we there yet?
Things You Don’t Want To Hear On Your Summer Vacation
- “Wow, nice shark bite”
- “I got us a great discount if we agree to be drug mules”
- “We can’t afford Disney World. We’re taking you kids to Carpet World”
- “Please, do as the Somali pirates say”
- “Dude, you don’t remember hooking up with Snooki?”
- “Do you want a room facing the pool or the mountainous border region of Pakistan?”
- “Close your eyes while swimming or the oil will blind you”
Travel Agency Jokes
- I had someone ask for an aisle seat (on the plane) so that their hair wouldn’t get messed up by being near the window.
- A client called in inquiring about a package to Hawaii. After going over all the cost info, she asked, “Would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii?”
- A travel agent looked up from his desk to see an older lady and an older gentleman peering in the shop window at the posters showing the glamorous destinations around the world. The agent had had a good week and the dejected couple looking in the window gave him a rare feeling of generosity. He called them into his shop and said, “I know that on your pension you could never hope to have a holiday, so I am sending you off to a fabulous resort at my expense, and I won’t take no for an answer.” He took them inside and asked his secretary to write two flight tickets and book a room in a five star hotel. They, as can be expected, gladly accepted, and were on their way. About a month later the little lady came in to his shop. “And how did you like your holiday?” he asked eagerly. “The flight was exciting and the room was lovely,” she said. “I’ve come to thank you. But, one thing puzzled me. Who was that old guy I had to share the room with?”
“Marrying cousins was astoundingly common into the nineteenth century, and nowhere is this better illustrated than with the Darwins and their cousins the Wedgwoods (of pottery fame). Charles married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, daughter of his beloved Uncle Josiah. Darwin’s sister Caroline, meanwhile, married Josiah Wedgwood III, Emma’s brother and the Darwin siblings’ joint first cousin. Another of Emma’s brothers, Henry, married not a Darwin but a first cousin from another branch of his own Wedgwood family, adding another strand to the family’s wondrously convoluted genetics. Finally, Charles Langton, who was not related to either family, first married Charlotte Wedgwood, another daughter of Josiah and cousin of Charles, and then upon Charlotte’s death married Darwin’s sister Emily, thus becoming, it seems, his sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s husband and raising the possibility that any children of the union would be their own first cousins.”
A New York family bought a ranch out West where they intended to raise cattle. Friends visited and asked if the ranch had a name.
“Well,” said the would-be cattleman, “I wanted to name it the Bar-J. My wife favored Suzy-Q, one son like the Flying-W, and the other wanted the Lazy-Y. So we’re calling it the Bar-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y.”
“But where are all your cattle?” the friends asked.
“None survived the branding.”