Drash on Parashat Matot-Mas'ei 2018
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria
This week’s double portion sets out in precise detail the avenging against the Midianites and the prospect for the Promised Land. The new home being prepared comes after 40 years of wandering (Num 33:1-37), a compressed reminder of the staging posts along the journey through physical wilderness. The simplicity of life in midbar provided time for the slave generation to pass away before the young and vigorous generation of desert dwellers took up the task of crossing the Yarden Jordan. With the arrival of Av, the imprint of destruction and rebuilding echoes the task of the return to the land, which housed the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Av reminds us that the corporate return to pagan Canaan and the attempt to realign it with monotheism, would prove an ongoing battle. In these final portions of “Numbers” the midbar experience is closing, even though the conquest itself is still to be commenced. New civic and military leadership, provided by the commissioning of the spies and the confirmation of Joshua as the reliable and courageous leader, will transition from Moshe. New religious leadership is also in place. Having lost two sons, Nadav and Avihu (Lev 10: 1-3 and remaining silent in the face of their deaths) Aharon, by now High Priest “Emeritus” still in his role but with duties much reduced, observes his son Eleazar as the senior manager of the work of the mishkan.
The nation had already bade farewell to Miriam (Parashat Chukat Num 20:1) and it was also time for Aharon, Moshe’s older brother to depart the story. Miriam was buried in the sands of the Midbar Zin. Aharon was to die on top of Mt Hor. The place of his burial is not known, as would be the case soon with Moshe. Eleazar and Moshe are to accompany Aharon up the mountain, and the vestments of the office of High Priest are to be taken from Aharon and Eleazar is to be robed in them by none other than Moshe (Num 20:22-29). The people understood the transition and grieved for Aharon for 30 days.
The death is reiterated in Masei (Num 33:38-39) as having taken place in the 40th year of the wanderings on Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the fifth month (counting from Pesach). It is a quiet death. Aharon, who was the mouthpiece for Moshe in Egypt, is silent as he accepts his final journey. This leaves Moshe facing the reality of his own impending death. What did he feel as he descended Mt Hor, accompanied by his nephew Eleazar? Had brother and son provided words of intimacy and thanks, and appreciation and nostalgia or had they also been silent?
Life had changed before Moshe’s very eyes. The personal autonomy of women, still controlled by fathers and husbands in the matter of women’s vows (Num 30:4-17) now contrasted against the precedent of Zelophechad’s daughters being able to inherit property in their own right (Num 36:10-12). Such was the new reality (Num 36:13) “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan, by Jericho.”
Having faced the loss of his sister and brother, Moshe needs all his strength to complete the transition. We are also reminded that transitions provide opportunities by which we may be strengthened: to change, to embrace now possibilities despite the hardships they impose. So we rise for reminder that ends B’Midbar, as with each book of Torah, to say “chazak be strong [as an individual], chazak be strong [as an individual], b’nitchazek and let us be strengthened [as a collective, the sum of each person]”. As we face the challenges of Av, we find strength in our communities to reinvent and go on.