Mattot Massei


One of England’s transformational personalities is choirmaster, Gareth Malone. Whether it is Military Wives or Hospital Staff or simply individuals stuck at home during lockdown, Gareth manages to draw song and harmony out of people, who never knew they had it. He releases a musical and emotional energy that breaks barriers and builds lives.

If there are two Hebrew words that sum up what Gareth does, they are the title words of the two parashotwe read this Shabbat: Mattot and Masei. In the context of the sidra, the word, Mattot, means ‘tribes.’ But Matteh also means a stick or rod. The word, Masei means ‘journeys’. Hence, the sidra combination means we have a joining of the ‘stick’ and the ‘journey’ or the static with the dynamic, the Mattot with the Masei.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (a leading scholar at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel and the founding editor of the Talmudic Encyclopaedia) suggests that the linking of these two titles is more than a chance connection. It points to an idea that has wide ramifications in Jewish thinking. He says a key theme of Judaism is to infuse life into all of creation, to advance from the static to the dynamic – to move from Mattot to Masei. The Torah records this transformation with an actual stick, on several occasions. The rod of Aaron sprouted blossoms and almonds. The staff of Moses became alive and turned into a snake in the presence of Pharaoh and was also used to perform the ten plagues and split the Red Sea.

The Three Week period of the calendar that we are now in, recalls the times that Jerusalem was being ravaged by the Romans leading to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th Av. The Midrash points out that ultimately the loss of the Temple was a kindness from G-d. The destruction was performed on the sticks and stones of the Temple structure rather than the fabric of the Jewish people. Rabbi Zevin explains that the challenge in our generation, as we build and rebuild the physical infrastructure of the state of Israel, is also to succeed in the ethical, moral and spiritual rebuilding of our country. To turn the Mattot into Masei.

We have seen in our own shul how the structure of lockdown released an enormous wellspring of love and generosity, volunteering and creativity. As we read Mattot and Masei this week, let us harness this energy to vitalise our own lives, our families, our community and our society.