On the Puzzle of Parshat Matot
הרב שאול אלעזר שנלר
By virtue of the weekly Torah reading every Shabbat, we all have the opportunity to learn and be familiar with the Five Chumashim of the Torah. But occasionally this familiarity isn't enough. The weekly reading of "twice the text and once the translation" encourages us to read and understand the verses of the parsha each week. But sometimes, because of the gap between one parsha and the next, the connection can be missed.
This happens often with regard to our parsha as well, parshat Matot, which opens with the laws of nedarim (vows) and their nullification. We learn, understand and continue onward. But if we remember "where you came from and where you going to" we will immediately become aware of the difficult question involved in this.
A short reminder: starting with parshat Chukat we are already in the fortieth year in the desert. At the waters of merivah it was decreed that Moshe will not bring B'nei Israel into the Land, and after the battles described at the end of parshat Chukat, we find Bnei Israel encamped on the plains of Moav across from Yarden Yericho and poised to enter. Afterwards transpire the story with Bil'am and the sin of Pe'or (parshat Balak and the beginning of parshat Pinchas). As a result of the plague, and in preparation for the entry to the Land, Moshe Rabbenu is again commanded to enumerate B'nei Israel according to their families, a census which determines how they will inherit the Land (as HaShem says regarding this poll: "to them will the land be divided as an inheritance by the number of names"). In continuation comes the story dealing with the resolution to the claim of the daughters of Tz'lofchad to their inheritance. After the census, HaShem commands Moshe Rabbenu to ascend Har Nevo and see the Land from there, and to be gathered unto his nation. As a result of Moshe's request, HaShem instructs him to appoint Yehoshua in his place, and Moshe does this. Parshat Pinchas concludes with the mitzvah of the Mussaf sacrifices, a mitzvah which will commence only after the entry to the Land and was not performed in the desert (and previously, in a separate article, we explained the reason for this, as well as the reason why the Tamid sacrifice was mentioned again).
Now, just before Moshe's passing away and the entry to the Land, we would expect the parsha to not involve anything except that which is directly connected to inheriting the Land, or the parting words of Moshe Rabbenu to Am Israel. And indeed this is exactly what happens – in parshat Masei and the book of Devarim. Only that between parshat Pinchas and parshat Masei is our parsha, which includes three subjects: parshat nedarim, the war with Midian and its aftermath, and the request of B'nei Reuven and B'nei Gad. The placement of the last two is understood, as these are events which occurred at this point in time. But the placement of the parsha concerning the mitzvah of nedarim is very perplexing – why did Moshe Rabbenu delay teaching the mitzvah of vows and their violation until now? 
We can say that the focus of the passage isn't nedarim, but the family. Almost all of this section doesn't deal with the prohibition of nedarim, which appears only briefly at the beginning of the parsha, but rather with the identities of the people who can nullify a girl's neder: initially - her father; after her betrothal – her father together with her husband, and after her marriage – only her husband is entitled to nullify, and only vows which, if fulfilled, would involve inui nefesh (suffering or deprivation) or affect "that which is between him and her" and harm shalom bayit (marital harmony). In this respect a widowed or divorced woman stands on her own and does not return to her father's house.
The focus of all this is stressed again and with great emphasis at the conclusion of the passage: "These are the laws which HaShem commanded Moshe between a man and his wife (and) between a father and his daughter in her adolescence in her father's house." What is mentioned in the conclusion are the relationships between a daughter and her husband, and in her girlhood between her and her father's home - and vows and the prohibition of violating them aren't mentioned at all. The Torah focuses us here specifically on the subject of family relationships, which is reflected in the laws which are explained in this passage. (Compare this conclusion with the conclusions of the parshiot on forbidden foods, the metzora (leper), emissions and niddah, sotah, nazir and more: in all of them the conclusion centers clearly on the heart of the halachic issue which is discussed.)
Why was it important to Moshe Rabbenu to teach this to Am Israel before his death?
Perhaps we can explain that because Moshe Rabbenu was obligated to separate from his wife because of HaShem's constant contact with him, there was a concern that this might be seen as a model of the ideal situation. Therefore Moshe Rabbenu wanted to personally give this message, stressing the centrality of marriage, in the strongest way possible, as is proved by the level of halachic influence this has - that halachot from the Torah are determined by marital status. (We see a similar message in the Gemera in Yevamot 63b that specifically Ben Azzai -who was constrained from marrying a woman – stressed the great importance of marriage more than his fellow Rabbis, in order that people wouldn’t mistakenly think that he considered, or showed by his example, that marriage is unnecessary.)
And we can explain this in yet another way. When B'nei Israel were preparing to leave Egypt, HaShem commanded them regarding the special mitzvah of the Passover sacrifice, in which they were to take "a lamb for every parental home, a lamb for every household." Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch interpreted that in this way HaShem began building the State of the Torah. The State of the Torah isn't based upon individuals, but upon families; the family is the building block of the nation.
As the result of the sin of the spies, Am Israel spent forty years in the unnatural setting of the desert. Now, before the entry into the Land and the building of the State of the Torah, the message is given again regarding the indispensable centrality of the family in Israel (just as Ma'amad HaBrit – the assembly of the Covenant – was repeated in order to connect it to the entrance to the Land).
If so, perhaps we can broaden our horizons and explain the entire parsha in this way:
There are three challenges facing every family. One: the parental family – when the next generation do not succeed in fulfilling G-d's word "therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife" and run an independent home, and to the contrary - the relationship with the parents or the parents' mentality become an inseparable part of family life. Two: in contrast to the parents who love their children and all their intentions are for their good, there is an external challenge which threatens the home – the winds of immodesty and permissiveness which blow from outside. In addition to these two challenges is the third one: proper management of priorities – not to get caught up in the "rat race" and allow career or money to dominate at the expense of the family cell.
Against these three challenges, Moshe Rabbenu deals with them in our parsha before his farewell to the nation.
Parshat nedarim shows the great need for creating a connection between a man and his wife which is independent of the connection with the parents.
Afterwards comes the war with Midian, because they attempted to cause Israel to sin by harlotry and to defile the sanctity of the family. After the war as well, Moshe stresses that the main punishment should be directed at those women who caused Israel to sin, and not to suffice with punishing the men – the "enemies." The men of the Israelite army bring a sacrifice to HaShem to purify their souls and atone, even for impure thoughts.
Finally we learn about B'nei Gad and B'nei Reuven, who (when requesting the lands across the Jordan) mention their livestock before their wives and children. Moshe gently admonishes them for this until they get the message and adjust their words accordingly.
So in essence the entire parsha revolves around the issue of the family and its importance.
When the Jewish family will be whole and healthy, the Jewish nation can be built in health as the nation of HaShem the G-d of Israel, and then can fully come to pass G-d's blessing to Avraham: "and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you."
 The Rishonim already dealt with this question, and offered several explanations. The Rashbam wrote that the simple meaning of the law "he shall not violate his word" is not violating his word in the sense of breaching his vow, but rather delaying (as in Judges 3:25 "and they delayed until it was late"). And because the parsha discussing the Mussaf sacrifices ends with "in addition to your vows," the Torah comes to tell us the law not to delay a sacrifice which was vowed to the Mikdash (in contrast to the halachic explanation and in contrast to the rest of the passage which speaks about violating vows of prohibition). Rabbi Avraham Ben Ezra writes that this passage was actually said after the war with Midian and the oath of B'nei Gad and B'nei Reuven, but was written before the recounting of the story. The Ramban wrote that after the Torah mentioned vows concerning sacrifices, it comes to tell us that in addition there is another kind of vow which is prohibition vows and oaths, and teaches us their laws. Admittedly none of these explanations are free of difficulties, as one who looks into them can see. And the words of the Torah are multifaceted, radiating simultaneously in many directions "like a hammer shattering a stone." And perhaps with the combination of their words we can add the direction explained in this article.
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