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Parashat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:32-36:13)

“So Moses, at the Lord’s bidding, instructed the Israelites, saying:
‘The plea of the Josephite tribe is just.’” (Numbers 36:2)

“The Torah has seventy faces” is an essential building block of the Jewish interpretive tradition. Commentators invoke it to assign multiple (and even contradictory) meanings to the same verse. However, it also can mean the Torah presents multiple faces or personalities in different situations. Parashat Mattot-Masei, which closes out the book of Numbers, is a good example.

Mattot describes the Israelites’ genocidal war on the Midianites; they kill every man, sexually-active woman, and male child (Num. 31:1-18). This is a vengeful Torah. Later, Massei describes the six cities of refuge the Israelites must build. Those who kill accidentally can flee to them and be protected from vigilante justice as they await lawful trials (Num. 35:9-29). This is a merciful Torah. Of course, each of those acts are commanded by God, so the idea the Torah has 70 faces also means God, as described in the Torah, has multiple attributes. God is both vengeful and merciful.

This is not merely a theological belief. Since humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), each human being contains multiple “faces” (read: impulses), which may oppose one another. So when Massei recaps the Israelites’ desert journey, “They [the Israelites] left Kivrot haTa-avah and camped in Chatzerot,” (Num 33:17), Rabbi Yitzchak of Vorka (1779–1848; early Chassidic rabbi) engages in wordplay and turns it into an existential question with its own answer: how do you bury (k’vor) your lust (ta-avah)? By remembering the world is just a yard (chatzer) in front of a hall. The key to self-control (of our conflicting impulses) is to remember this ephemeral world is merely a passageway to the eternal world-to-come.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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