Matot - weekly Torah portion

We are now in the period known as The Three Weeks, that occur between the 17th day of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. A mourning period of an era seemingly bygone. When the question is asked why Jerusalem was destroyed the answer is “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Ka,sa and Bar Kamsa”. The story goes that a person insulted Bar Kamsa who was invited by mistake to a dinner at his place instead of inviting Kamsa. Despite the pleadings of Bar Kamsa not to be insulted and removed from the dinner, the man insists that he has to leave the place. Bar Kamsa was deeply insulted not so much because of the man who wanted him to leave but on account of the sages who sat there and did not protest the act, showing that they felt comfortable with it. From there things deteriorated to a point that Jerusalem experienced complete annihilation.

Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984

You may think that this is a rare case but apparently small deeds can cause great harm. So is the story from the Mishna Sukkah, chapter 4 4th Mishna in my own translation. “How is the Lulav (ceremonial palm frond) Mitvah performed? On a first day of the festival that is to be celebrated on Shabbat, they take their Lulavs to the Temple Mount, and the cantors receive them and place them on top of the shelf, and the elders – they put theirs in the chamber. They then teach them to recite: ‘anyone who reaches a lulav with his hands, it is a gift to him.’ Next day they get up early and come back, the cantors through the lulavs before them, and they snatch them, and hit one another. When it was realized that it has become a menace – they ruled that each person will have to wave a lulav in their own homes.” The mitzvah of the lulav is fulfilled only if the person own the lulav. The problem arises when it is on a Shabbat and then one has to bring them ahead of time to the Temple Mount. As it is difficult to differentiate one from the other it is given as a gift. The problem was that this solution just did not work. People had not respect of one another and therefore the tradition, the minhag, had to be changed and they could no longer bring their lulavs on to Temple Mount so as not to endanger the public.

When we read this week’s portion of the Torah we learn of the attempt of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to separate themselves from the rest of the children of Israel. They think that the trans-Jordan area is a good land for them and they make a request, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.” The long and tedious journey they have gone through with their brothers and sisters is forgotten now that they have come upon a place which is nice and comfortable. They wish to separate at this point of the journey and Moses is quick to realize the danger. “Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here?” In other words he tells them are you kidding yourselves that you will be left here to enjoy the fruits that others have helped you reach and you will not help them out too? To their credit their response is quick and wise, it fixes the bad situation that they have created. “We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be armed ready to go before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance. For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”

Three cases lay now before us. The case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa teaches us of the significant damage that may occur from what may seem to be an insignificant incident. The scar, however, remains painful, standing out reminding of its presence over and over again. We must realize that we can avoid such harmful damage when we think ahead of time of potential consequences of our actions, maybe also what we refrain to act upon.

The case of the lulavs calls to be careful when taking a mitzvah to the extreme. That can create unnecessary injuries, rendering the mitzvah meaningless. Everyone could have had a lulav to rejoice with during the festival together. Instead, the ritual that was supposed to bonding people together, resulted in separation, possibly hatred. It was so dangerous that it had to be moved away from the Temple Mount back to the confinement of the individual people homes’. It may sound funny to us but the decision, I am confident, was not reached without significant thought and after pleading with the people to behave themselves, that there is no need for all the pushing and shoving and hitting. There is not point to a mitzvah that involves a sin for it to be fulfilled.

The third case also talks of a problem, a deed that went wrong. Maybe the representatives talking to Moses did not fully comprehend the consequences of their request. However, unlike the first two cases they were quick to come back with a solution that would solve and other wise dire situation. They did not insist on a solution that was wrong and would not be acceptable, they took immediately the necessary corrective measures. Measures that served their purpose without hurting the good of the people at-large. It is easy to insult; easy to quarrel. It is tougher to take a step back, think for a moment or two, and suggest a win-win solution.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 26 July 2019, 24 Tamuz, 5779

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