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Parshat Matot-Masei: The Long Road to Freedom

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

לעילוי נשמת מאיר זאב בן מנחם מנדל הכהן

In Memory of my maternal grandfather Ze’ev Racker on his 31st Yarzheit

It seems an odd way to finish the book of Bamidbar. Laws about oaths and vows, request of Reuven Gad and half of Menashe to occupy the other side of the Jordan, Moshes wrath at their request (have the people not changed??), the long list of stops along the 40 year sojourn in the wilderness, the cities of refuge and an ostensibly extraneous episode about a counterclaim to the earlier request of the daughters of Zelofchad. I want to suggest that this week’s parshiot provide an appropriate and edifying book end to the journey of the wilderness.

One of the central question the book of Bamidbar addresses is how we build a society that ensures the liberty and rights of the individual with a commitment and responsibility towards the group? How do we navigate the narrow path between the individual and their rights and the survival of the nation/group/society? How do we manage boundaries and create group cohesion but at the same time educate towards tolerance and inclusivism? How do we create the correct balance between human autonomy and reverence/submission to something transcendent? How do we educate towards the common good/shared narratives and social cohesion? These sound like modern questions, and it may be anachronistic to align them with an ancient book but to my mind these are questions that can be read quite explicitly out of the book we are finishing this week.

The book has followed the trajectory of a slave nation that have been released from the bondage of oppression. At the start they have been given what Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ termed negative liberty – that is freedom ‘from’ – the absence of constraints or boundaries. John Stuart Mill, the famous Nineteenth century political philosopher in his essay On Liberty, was concerned about protecting the individual from the tyranny of the majority or the state and hence championed the rights of the individual through emphasising individuality and non-conformity. His argument is that a person should be left to be free in his actions so long as they do not harm the other. The dangers he warned of litter our history books and arguably can already be seen in the narratives in Bamidbar – the story of the Golden calf, the sin of the mitonanim (complaints in chapter 11), the story of the Mergalim. Time and again a dominant and vociferous majority would drown out any other voices. Mill was correct in advocating for the individual. However, his kind of liberalism also comes at a long-term cost, as we have witnessed over the last century. Sometimes the individual does not know how to nurture true liberty, and instead of becoming a master of liberty will become a master at satisfying his/her unrestrained desires. The individual rights and needs will take precedence over societies needs and the common good and we will be left with a vacuous, narcissistic meaningless form of freedom.

For a people to be free requires a long road, a journey to understanding WHAT freedom actually means; how the emancipation of the individual is not just about his physical freedom from constraint but rather his spiritual freedom to be an agent of change, transformation, growth, goodness and transcendence.

It thus comes as no surprise that these last few Parshiot in the book of Bamidbar – the book of our long walk to freedom showcase two fundamental principles of positive liberty – 1. the importance of a journey, a process as we have discussed 2. the value of words.

The list of the sojourns in Parshat Masei are not just a revision of where the people were. We are an instant society. The quicker, more immediate, more expedient – the better. Sometimes however, we would do well to remind ourselves that what is truly real, authentic and good requires time. True wisdom is not instant information. Real learning requires a journey of a lifetime. We need to soak up the stops along the way, hear the music, touch the leaves on the trees, hear the silence and savour the quiet and ordinary moments of life. In the mundane journey of living if we are attuned to it, we find the most ethereal and transcendent meaning of life. That is where our freedom is truly won. The people must learn that freedom is in the process, the long and sometimes boring walk along the wild terrain.

Parshat Matot begins with the laws of vows and oaths. On Yom Kippur we begin with a solemn prayer ‘kol nidre’. What is the significance? The one thing that differentiates us from animals is our speech. Speech allows us to express our inner feelings, emotions hopes and dreams. Speech can be used to elevate us to our highest level in prayer, in kind words to another, and in relaying deep and powerful ideas. Equally it can be used to ‘kill’, through shaming, evil speech and cursing. It is the greatest tool we have to create or destroy. To take a vow is to speak in order to act; to make a promise about the future, to realise the greatest power I have as a human – the power of speech and intent, foresight and action. It is the cornerstone of our liberty and the most powerful mechanism needed to build a nation and society. That is why the book is called ‘Bamidbar’ from the root ‘ledaber’ – to speak. The motif of speech is one of the primary themes in the book. In the last two narratives we once more see the theme unfold. The request of the tribes to remain on the other side of the Jordan, is a request housed in language and interpreted by Moshe as a manifestation of self-interested individuals only concerted with wealth and material success. But what the tribes prove is twofold. Firstly, they are able through words and persuasion, in a healthy constructive way, to show that they are indeed invested in the common mission of the nation. They too will be part of the whole, part of the conquest. They do not want to separate themselves from the nation but rather they want to ensure their tribe receives the best it can without negating the common good of the whole.

The second narrative with which the book ends is a counterclaim to the original claim of the daughters of Zelofchad to inherit their fathers portion. The heads of their tribe worry that if they marry men from other tribes their portion will be lost to the tribe. In the previous narrative we had a claim by a group of sisters (who are unusually individually named) against the whole. It was a beautiful example of a counternarrative to Mill’s tyranny of the majority. And because of the way in which they presented their claims (as opposed to Korach as I spoke about a few weeks ago), their petition was granted. This time we have once again a group of individuals bringing a counterclaim to the previous potion. Once again, their claim in granted BUT not at the expense of the daughters of Zelofchad. A compromise is found and both parties accept it. It is no surprise that the book ends on this seemingly anticlimactic legalistic narrative for it is this narrative that encapsulates all those challenges to building a free society that we listed at the start. It navigates in a positive, mutually agreeable and constructive manner opposing claims of different individuals. It showcases HOW one should argue and HOW one can nurture the common good without losing a sense of individual identity and rights. It is the paradigmatical counternarrative to the moans, cries, self-interest and narrow vision of the first generation. It is a nation matured and ready to enter into a common mission that respects each individual. It is a nation that has not just been granted negative liberty but has nurtured a deep and meaningful appreciation for positive liberty too.

Shabbat Shalom

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