If a man makes a vow to God or commits himself to some action, he must keep the vow. So we are told in Mattot, and this is not surprising. If a woman makes a vow, then whether or not she has to keep it depends on either her father or her husband, depending on where she is living. Is this surprising and does such a distinction provoke debate? At the time Moses receives these rules from God, there is no time to have one, since Israel is commanded to attack Midian, which they do with great success. No sooner do the victorious troops return with the spoils of conquest, including the women and children, than another troubling incident occurs. Moses, the compassionate leader, the one who has so often pleaded to God for the people, reprimands the generals and captains for not killing the women and boys and promptly commands them to do so. Are the boys guilty of the sins of some of their mothers? Another swing of emotion follows, when, over and above the portion of spoils the army is instructed to present to the priests and the Levites, the commanders, of their own free will, offer gifts to God in thanks for not losing any of their men – an act of double generosity. If only the generals in charge during the First World War had cared so much for their troops!
More generosity of spirit follows. The leaders of Gad and Reuben ask that they be allowed to settle on the side of the Jordan presently occupied by the people. Despite Moses’ misgivings that they are trying to avoid having to fight in order to conquer the land on the other side of the river, the two tribes show that they have absolutely no intention of shirking the fight. Quite the opposite: they volunteer to be in the vanguard, and so Moses responds with equal generosity and grants their request.
Can it be? Are we already at the far edge of the wilderness, at the end of B’minbar? It has taken forty years to get here, yet it seems like only yesterday that we were embarking on the beginning of Bereshit. We are indeed coming to the end of the journey, and Mas’ei summarises all our wanderings. It does not end there, however. Instructions are given for the conquest of the land and the delineation of its borders. As a new chapter (or book) is about to begin in our history, new leaders are appointed. Land is to be set aside for Levitical cities and for cities of refuge. This is a parsha full of things and there is no more space here for them, but there will be at 10.30 on Saturday. Liz of the most musical settings will be leading us, so come along.