A young Jewish mother walks her son to the school bus on his first day of kindergarten.
"Please behave, my bubaleh," she says.
"Take good care of yourself and think about your mother who is waiting for you, tataleh!"
"And come right back home on the bus, my shepseleh."
"Remember, your Mommy loves you a lot, my tiere!"
At the end of the school day, the bus returns. She runs to her son and hugs him.
"So what did the love of my life learn on his first day of school?" she asks.
"I learned my name is David," is the boy's response.
The Power of a Name
The name of this week's Torah portion is the Hebrew word "Matos," which means tribes. This is so because the portion opens with Moses' address to the heads of the Jewish tribes (1).
In Judaism, a name is profoundly significant. It conveys the inside story of the person or thing that carries this name. The same is true concerning the names of Torah portions. Each portion of the Bible, notwithstanding its multitude of details, contains a pervading theme throughout. Yet it is not always easy to discover the theme and it is the name of the portion that serves as our clue to discover its unifying thread.
What is the significance of this week's name, Matos? And how does it convey the theme of the entire portion?
A Tale of Two Names
It is intriguing that the Bible has two different names to describe the twelve tribes that constituted the nation of Israel: Shevatim and Matos. The latter is used more frequently in the Bible, but the former, too, is used more than fifty times and has become their common title in Midrashic and Talmudic literature.
Why the need for two distinct titles to describe the same entity?
The Hebrew word Shevatim means branches. The Hebrew word Matos means staffs (2).
What is the difference between a branch and a staff? Both stem from a tree, but the branch is still attached to its source, as opposed to the staff that is severed from its progenitor.
Even when the branch, shevet in Hebrew, is severed from the tree, it is still soft, fresh and moist, containing the sap and vitality of its source. One looks at a detached branch and sees it as a continuum of a tree.
A staff, on the other hand, may have once upon a time, come from a tree. But since then, it has become dry, hard and stiff. No longer does it possess the vitality of the tree, nor reflect its properties. When one looks at a staff, one does not instinctively trace it back to its original progenitor. The good old days when it was part of a tree are long gone. It has since grown old, hard and tough.
These two phases of the branch and the staff, find expression in human and Jewish life as well, in three arenas: the psycho-biological, the spiritual, and the historical.
On a psycho-biological level, each of our lives consists of two general phases -- the time when we are branches; and the time when we are called upon to become staffs.
From birth through the following two decades or so, we are like branches. We remain attached and we receive nurture from our progenitors, our parents, families, schools and communities. We rely on them; we blame them for our problems; we live off their sap and we allow them to make decisions for us.
Then comes the time in life when we must graduate from being mom's "bubaleh" to gain our own "name." We need to cut the "umbilical cord," not only the physical one, but also the psychological one. We must assume independence and make ourselves accountable for our future. No longer can we take credit for the accomplishments of others, nor blame others for our failures. Now it becomes up to us to become the authors of our own destiny.
Journey of a Soul
On a spiritual level, these two phases -- the branch and the stick -- parallel the period prior to our birth versus the time after our birth.
Before we are born into this physical world, each of our souls can be defined as a "branch," a living extension of the tree of life. The soul is a "branch of G-d," as it were, a spark of divinity.
Birth is the time when the soul descends into a physical body and a mundane environment. The soul turns from a branch into a staff. No longer do we feel the presence of G-d and our relationship with Him. As the soul journeys through its life on this planet, it must fight its own battles and reap the fruit of its own labor. It must assume independence.
When the Tree Collapsed
The same two stages find their expression in the pattern of history as well.
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, serving as the spiritual epicenter of the universe, a home in which the Divine reality was manifestly present -- the Jewish people and the world at large perceived life in starkly different terms. A sensitivity to the spiritual was present in the world; G-d was a reality. Jerusalem was the tree and humanity was its branch.
Then the tree was destroyed. During the three weeks between the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz and the 9th day of Av, Jerusalem was plundered, the Holy Temple put ablaze, the nation massacred, and the survivors exiled. The Divine presence (shechinah) went into hiding, and we metamorphosed from branches to staffs. Our lives and the world at large became detached from the spiritual essence of existence; we became autonomous.
The Courage to Become a Staff
We mourn the transformation from branch to staff, in all of the above three arenas. As Existentialist philosophers described so acutely, there is something very comforting in being a branch, in holding on to the tree from which we stem. To relinquishing that dependence, to become truly independent, is fearful and for some people excruciatingly difficult. One philosopher suggested that the fear of genuine independence is the deepest fear that drives human behavior: it means you have nobody to blame for your problems and faults.
Yet, a staff has one advantage over a branch, namely, its strength. A branch is soft; a staff is strong and powerful. The same is true in human life. Only by relinquishing your dependence on your source, can your inner strength and power emerge. You can never really know who you are, nor can you maximize your true potential, as long as you remain dependent and reliant.
Similarly, as long as the soul remains in heaven, reflecting G-d's light, it cannot discover its deepest essence. It is precisely when the soul travels to an earthly and unholy world, where it loses contact with G-d -- at least on the conscious level -- and it is faced with the challenge of constructing its own destiny, that the soul can encounter its own core.
Paradoxically, as long as the soul is close to G-d, its relationship to G-d is more superficial and circumstantial, for then the soul does not need to fight for G-d, for truth, for depth. Only when the soul becomes independent of G-d (as it were), can it cultivate a truly profound relationship with G-d. The ability of an isolated soul, surrounded by a world of lies, to stand up and declare, "G-d Is One!", expresses the ultimate splendor of the human condition.
And the same is true regarding the exile experience. Notwithstanding the pain and torment of exile, it has elicited from the Jewish people their deepest creativity and profoundest resources. It is not coincidental that the greatest explosion of Torah wisdom -- the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Midrash -- occurred following Rome’s annihilation of Jewish political independence and its ambitious war to kill or displace every living Jew. From branches the Jews turned staffs.
The Two Dimensions of the Jew
That is why the Jewish tribes have been given these two different names, Shevatim (branches) and Matos (sticks). The two biblical titles define two distinct states of the Jew's existence -- as a branch reflecting the life of the tree and as a staff fighting its own battle for integrity (3).
This also explains why this particular portion is always read during the three week period of Jerusalem's destruction and the commencement of the exile, since it was this tragic state that transformed the Jewish people from "branches" into "staffs."
Vows and Wars
Now we can come to understand why the word "Matos" was chosen as the name of this week's Torah portion. The three major themes discussed in the portion, are, in one form or another, a call to leave the serene oasis of the "branch" and engage the frightening world of the "stick," for here is where the ultimate calling of man's destiny lie.
In the first part of the portion, Moses communicates to the "head of the tribes" the obligation not to violate a vow uttered by a person (for example, a vow not to eat a particular food, etc.). He then proceeds to present a detailed outline of how vows may be overturned and annulled.
Then the portion embarks on the story of the Jewish war against the Midianite nation, who plotted genocide against the Jews. The Torah then moves on to describe the fashion in which the wealth taken from Midian was divided among the Jews and how large portions of the wealth were given to charity.
The third and final theme of the portion tells the story of two Jewish tribes who request from Moses to remain living in the Trans-Jordan and not settle the Land of Israel, located on the western side of the Jordanian River. These tribes own an extremely large number of animals and they see that land as uniquely suitable to shepherd their livestock.
Moses is outraged by the request. "Your brothers will go to war and you will sit here idly?!" Moses exclaimed.
Only when they promise him that they would assist their brethren in their battles prior to settling in their desired land, does Moses agree to give them the land they requested for themselves and their families.
Now, what is the connection between these three items and the name of the entire portion, "Matos," underscoring the need to become a "stick"?
Engaging the World
The vows the Torah enjoins us to keep, are undertaken as a means of segregation and asceticism. This is noble and idealistic, but it ultimately stems from the person being a "branch," a soul dependent on heaven, lacking the ability to take on the world, rather than shun it. The annulment of the vows, on the other hand, represents the spiritual maturity to engage the world and not escape it (4).
The same truth is being expressed in the second segment of the portion.
Midian was an arch-enemy of the Jewish people. In spiritual terms, Midian represents the ego that cannot tolerate the existence of the Jew who was called upon to serve as a witness to G-d on this planet. The ego excludes G-d. Midian is the Hebrew word for strife and hatred, stemming from an ego that cannot respect and embrace otherness (5).
Being a "stick," rather than a "branch," means learning not only how to subdue your ego, but how to utilize its resources and ultimately sublimate it toward living a productive and moral life. This is the difference between the "branch" personality and the "stick" personality: The branch-like person shuns his or her inner challenging forces; the stick-like individual can stand up to them and learn how to redefine them as a catalyst for growth and renewal, as the Jews did with Midian.
Finally, the two tribes wished to settle in the eastern-side of the Jordan in order to live a life of serenity. They wished to live a life of shepherds, surrounded by the tranquil and spiritual terrain of nature and despised the thought of becoming part of the hustling and bustling lifestyle in Eretz Israel.
So Moses tells them, "Your brothers will go to war and you will sit here idly?!" The entire point of the soul coming down to this world was to fight!
What Moses is essentially saying is, you wish to be branches, to remain submerged in a spiritual environment and bask in the radiance of the tree of life. But the objective of man was to become a stick, to detach himself from the celestial wellsprings and transform the darkness of the physical egocentric universe into light.
(This essay is based on an address delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shababs Matos-Masei 5735, July 1975 (6)).
1) Numbers 30:2.
2) The following explanation was presented by Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi in a discourse from the year 1802 (published in Maamarei Admur Hazakan 5562 p. 237. Cf. references noted in Likkutei Sichos vol. 33 p. 195-196).
3) This is indicated by the fact that in Psalms chapter 132, the tribes are defines as "The shevatim of G-d." The term shevatim emphasizes a revealed association with G-d.
4) This, parenthetically, explains a contradiction in the Talmud. In one Talmudic source (Avos 3:13) vows are extolls as meritorious, while in another source (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:1) they are seen in a negative light. The answer to this , that it depends on the spiritual maturity level of the individual involved, if he (or she) is a "branch" or a "stick."
5) This idea is explained at length in the discourse Hachaltzu of the year 5659 (1899) by Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch.
6) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 33 pp. 194-198. See there for more detailed references to many of the ideas discussed in the essay.