This week we read a double Torah portion: Matot and Ma’asey (Numbers 30:2-36:13). They bring the Bible’s fourth book, the Book of Numbers (in Hebrew, Sefer BaMidbar or the Book in the Desert) to its conclusion. In a sense these two sections may be called “travel-sections”. They not only act as a review of the Israelites’ travels through the desert but also through time. The Book of Number’s two final sections take us on a physical journey, a spiritual journey, and an ethical journey through both space and time.
It might be appropriate to argue that the entire Book of Numbers is a book about different types of journeys. These journeys revolve around the Hebrew verbal root d.b.r. Hebrew is different from many other languages in that it derives Hebrew nouns from verbal roots that connect words through a consistent, but not always apparent, commonality. Thus, the word for desert /wilderness (midbar) is linguistically connected to the word for speech (midabber). Is the text teaching us that the desert can be an empty place filled only with intangible words or it can be a place filled with actions that become concrete deeds?
We can also call Sefer B’Midabar (Numbers) a book about speech. These two sections begin with the words: “lo yachel dvaro b’chol ha’yotze mipiv/he shall not desecrate his word/actions; but shall do as he promised” (30:3). The Hebrew reader will immediately connect the phrase with the concept of the desert. The verb used to break a promise; (ch.l.l.) is related to the word chol meaning: sand and hollowness. Thus, the leader who breaks his/her promise leads his people into an empty desert of mere words.
Judaism a religion that worries less about what one says but rather more about what one does. The Hebrew Bible constantly warns us not to place style over substance. In fact, Moses was a terrible orator and he would never have won a US television political debate. Thus, the Hebrew Bible tends to only take words that lead to actions seriously. For example, Adam became “human” due to his words becoming actions. The Torah exists by means of words that are to inspire us to concrete actions. It is for this reason that the Torah argues for truthful facts. It reminds us that a society based on lies is an empty society; one that in end is blown away by the sands of time.
Is this week’s section teaching us that the Hebrew Bible insists that news agencies and politicians provide their citizens not with spin but with reality? This is a text NOT based on mere sounds but on real ideas expressed in words that are then turned into actions. Again the Hebrew reader will note the play on words between results and merely words. We are then to create dvarim “ angible results” rather than merely words, “dibbur” or words of hollowness, mere sounds that fill the air but in the end mean nothing.
The Book of Numbers teaches us that it is up to us to decide if we wish to live in a midbar (desert) where we do not trust our leaders or our media or in a place where there are dvarim, words leading to actions. How we choose will determine the quality of our society. What do you think?
Youtubes for the Week
Songs of Travel:
The Exodus Song:
From France to Israel: