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Matot Masei 5769 dvar

Matot Masei 5769 dvar

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Published by Maurice Harris

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Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: Maurice Harris on Oct 25, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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D’var Torah – Matot / Masai 5769
Rabbi Maurice Harris
This Torah portion takes place at the end of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in thewilderness. The Jews are now on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses, atGod’s command, reviews all the stages of the 40 year journey for the people, listing thevarious places they camped at from the day they left Egypt. Later, Moses instructs theIsraelites to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan – the Promised Land – when they enter it, warning that if they permit some of the native peoples to remain there, they will findthem perpetually troublesome. God describes the geographical boundaries of thePromised Land, and names the leaders of each of the tribes of Israel who are to leadthe way into the land. With the last words of this Torah portion, we reach the end of thefourth of the five books of the Torah, the Book of Numbers. We’ll begin the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, next week. As you’ve heard me say before, that book is madeup of a series of final speeches that Moses makes to the Israelites during the lastcouple weeks of his life.
Focal point from 34:13 – the word
ץרֶאהָ תזֹבְ תָֹ ולחֲנַתְִ רשֶֲ ,לרָג
“This is the land that you will inherit, [each tribe] according to the casting of lots…”Albert Einstein was famously quoted as saying, when he objected to the basic ideas of quantum physics, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” But apparently God didplay dice with the allotment of the different regions of the Promised Land to the variousIsraelite tribes.In the book of Joshua, which is the first of the books of the Prophets, and which tells thestory of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and taking over the Land of Canaan, wesee the scene take place in which Moses’ successor, Joshua, casts lots to assign eachof the different tribes their specific territories. This happened in the town of Shiloh. Thespecific verse reads:
And Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the ETERNAL
ONE; and there Joshua divided the land for the children of Israel according to their divisions.”I was struck by the prominent role that chance plays in this moment in the biblical storyof how the Israelite tribes came to live in the different sections of the Promised Land.After all, God seems to have a very detailed plan for this people and this particular landfrom the very beginning of the story. How odd that God’s instruction would be for agame of chance to determine who settles which region of the land.On the other hand, there are some pretty important moments elsewhere in the HebrewBible that rely on the casting of lots. In the Book of Leviticus, we read about the specialritual for Yom Kippur involving the High Priest bringing two goats to the altar. The textreads as follows:
And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the ETERNAL at the door of thetent of meeting.
And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the ETERNAL, and the other lot for Azazel.
And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the ETERNAL, and offer him for a sin-offering.
But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the ETERNAL,to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.On the most solemn and sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur, amidst very detailed ritualrules, God builds in an element of randomness and chance. Now I realize that somemight argue that these scenes in which God tells people to cast lots aren’t reallyexamples of pure randomness and chance, because God has pre-ordained the results.Indeed, this is clearly what happens in the Book of Jonah, when the crew of the boatthat Jonah is aboard has become terrified of the deadly storm that has all but destroyedtheir vessel.“And they said every one to his fellow: 'Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us.' So they cast lots,
הנָי-לעַ ,לרָהַ לפֹִַ
and the lot fell upon Jonah.”And in fact, in the ancient Middle East, casting lots or special stones or similar acts of chance were not seen as acts of pure randomness, but rather they were seen as ways
of consulting the gods to find out their will. The word for “lot,”
, is also the word for “fate.” You don’t just cast lots, you cast to see your fate. I don’t even know if theIsraelites had a concept of randomness. And yet, still, I can’t help but notice, andmarvel, at what we might take away from the idea of a God who builds a certainelement of randomness and chance into the universe, and even into God’s greatestplans.Of course, I haven’t even mentioned what’s probably the most famous of all theepisodes involving the casting of lots in the Hebrew Bible.“In the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, theycast … the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfthmonth, which is the month Adar…” Of course, that’s from the Book of Esther. Purim,the early spring holiday that celebrates the story of Queen Esther, is named from theword “pur,” which the biblical text tells us was the Persian word for “goral,” casting lots.Bringing it back to our text – Moses talking to the Israelites only just a few weeks beforethey will go, with Joshua at their head, into the Promised Land. God explains that theywill cast lots to determine which tribes get which territories within the land. Somewherein this I feel there is a lesson about trusting and letting go. None of the chiefs of theIsraelite tribes will be able to vie for a part of the Promised Land that his tribe prefers.There’s not advantage to be gained in courting favor with Moses, or with Joshua. Theyhave no control either. All of them are commanded to participate in an exercise inwhich they have to throw their fate into mysterious hands and accept the results. It’s agreat act of trust and acceptance.This reminds me a little of a story told by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in her popular book,
Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal 
. Dr. Remen tells an anecdote about a lessonshe learned in her mid-thirties. She was already an academic physician, but she hadtaken some time to go to a retreat in Northern California. There were many artistsworking at their crafts at this particular retreat, and while she was there she learned howto forge metal jewelry. Perhaps it was a bit of a fluke, but it turned out that she made anexceptionally beautiful ring. Its design was the head of a woman whose long hair,entangled with stars, wound around your finger. It was quite stunning and it received alot of praise even from other jewelers and artists who were also at the retreat center.When the retreat was over, she was driving down California’s coastal Highway 1 andhappened upon a jeweler’s workshop. She met a kind older man who sat with her anddiscussed the craft. He complimented her on her ring, and offered to partner with her,making more like it if she would leave it with him. This is the moment in her story whenI feel like she decided to cast lots. After all, she didn’t know this man. Maybe he was

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