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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Matot-Masei

Parashat Matot-Masei

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual reading of Parashat Matot (which is Hebrew for “tribes”) and Parashat Masei (which is Hebrew for “journeys.”). Parashat Matot begins by discussing the vows and oaths (Heb: neder) that an individual can make – and the subsequent conditions which allow for their annulment. There is also a huge battle against Midian, and laws are given for how to divide the spoils of war (alongside the laws for koshering utensils). The tribes of Reuben and Gad request to settle in the land east of the Jordan River – Moshe initially rejects the request, but then later accepts provided the condition that those tribes lead the Israelites into battle. Parashat Masei summarizes the route that the Israelites took on their 40+ year journey from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael – 42 stops in all. This is an allusion to the 42 letter name of G-d, and the great, mystical secrets embedded in our own personal pilgrimage through space and place.[1] The boundaries of Eretz Yisrael are also given, Cities of Refuge are discussed, and the daughters of Zelophead marry into their tribe of Manasseh to retain the portions of the Land that they inherited from their father. This dual portion concludes the Book of Numbers and sets the scene for a special book – the Book of Deuteronomy, which is occasionally referred to as Mishneh Torah or “The Repetition (or Explanation) of Torah.”[2]

In (31:8), during the Battle of Midian, we read that Balaam was slain with a sword. If you remember back to Parashat Balak, Balaam was working to construct a lethal curse to ruin the Nation of Israel. He was commissioned by Balak, the king of Moab, because he was a prophet and necromancer whose medium of power was speech – it was in his mouth that he had power, and he worked to curse and wield lashon hara (Eng: evil tongue) against the Jews. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famous 16th century Kabbalist, teaches that – after Balaam’s death – he was reincarnated into a rock.[3] The explanation for this was that a rock – an inanimate object – is non-speaking. And in order to initiate his tikkun, a repair of his soul, Balaam had to repair the relationship he had with speaking. In Kabalistic philosophy, there are four different types of punishment (which are called gilgilum) through which a person can reincarnate.[4] And for Balaam, to repair the sins of his previous lifetime and better his soul, he was sent into the realm of the non-speaking – in Hebrew, domaim. First of all, it can be misleading to reduce the type of gilgul that a person must undergo by considering it a form of punishment – the Doctrine of Gilgul is premised upon the purification and ascent that the soul needs to connect with G-d. Secondly, our instinct is to assume that reincarnation into a rock is incarnation into an inferior realm. The Sages state that “he [Balaam] was equal to Moshe.”[5] (Bamidbar Raba 20). He was a great soul, and this points to the incredibly high potential of nature. Balaam was reincarnated into a rock; he was sent into nature to reshape, reform, and reconstruct his soul. This points to the idea that G-d is working through nature to enact tikkun. It’s not that nature is so low – in the case of Balaam, it actually seems to be the opposite. To heal his transgressions, Balaam must go back to the earth – like being made from the dust – where he can rectify his previous sins. The message in this Kabbalistic teaching is quite beautiful. And it’s also quite ecological, because the natural world is what heals our spiritual impurities.

In Chapter 35, we begin reading about the 48 cities that are given to the Levites. Because the Tribe of Levi didn’t inherit any land, these Levitical Cities served as a place for the Levites to dwell. And six of these cities included Cities of Refuge (Heb: Arei Miklat) – these were sanctuaries whereby someone who accidentally committed murder could find a safe haven from those seeking to avenge the death. There is, of course, much to be said about the social justice components of Cities of Refuge. But there is also an interesting ecological element to the Levitical Cities, which are given by the Tribes to the Levites from their hereditary holdings. All of the 48 cities were commanded to have open spaces. We read: “Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites, from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling, and open space for the cities all around them…their open space shall be for their animals, for their wealth, and for all their needs.” (35:2-3) The three uses for the open spaces that are mentioned – for animals, wealth, and needs – are designated pieces of land that are set aside for the welfare of working animals, for the sheep and cattle that sustain the livelihood of those not currently serving in the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), and for other needs such as beehives or structures to house pigeons and doves.[6] Building on the back of a theme from last week, with Parashat Pinchas, animal agriculture is having a horrendous effect on the health of the planet. But, built into the very structure, the very fabric, of Levitical Cities are designated areas that are designed to maintain the health of animals. These were not simply dwelling places for the Levites – they exposed other Israelites to a way of life that elevated their spiritual reality. The obligation of the Levites was to maintain a condition of being that could infuse the rest of the Nation with a sense of spiritual accountability. The Levites, and even further the kohanim and the Kohen Gagol, were intermediaries between the material and the divine and had special duties (i.e. a responsibility) to set an example. Proportionally, the size of the city in comparison to the open land and the fields and vineyards which surrounded the city, represents the spiritual significance of open space. Rashi also adds that “This land was kept open and undeveloped for the beautification of the town.”[7] The ecological significance of open space in Levitical Cities is not something we can overlook – it’s an integral part of maintaining a genuine, spiritual sensibility and connection with G-d.

This concludes the Book of Numbers. And with this we say: “Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik!” Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Balaam’s reincarnation into a rock, nature as a medium for tikkun, and the open spaces of Levitical Cities


Luria, Rabbi Yitzchak. Recorded by Rabbi Chaim Vital. Translation from Sha’ar Hagilgulim by Yitzchak bar Chaim. Commentary by Shabtai Teicher. “Forms of Gilgulim. Gate of Reincarnations: Chapter Twenty-Two, Section 3.” Available at:

Accessed on August 18, 2020

Luria, Rabbi Yitzchak. Recorded by Rabbi Chaim Vital. Translation from Sha’ar Hagilgulim by Yitzchak bar Chaim. Commentary by Shabtai Teicher. “The Incarnations of Abel. Gate of Reincarnations: Chapter Twenty-Nine, Section 2a.” Available at: on August 18, 2020

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.918 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.938 [3] Luria, “The Incarnations of Abel” [4] Luria, “Forms of Gilgulim” [5] Luria, “The Incarnations of Abel” [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.927 [7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.927

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