Commentary on Parashat Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13
The main story of Parashat Matot-Masei is the shameful mass murder of the Midianites by the Israelites. But the Torah portion begins with a story that, while less dramatic, teaches an important lesson about the importance of genuine curiosity.
Two of the Israelite tribes, Reuben and Gad, were cowherders and they asked Moses if they could settle in the lands just outside of Canaan that were more appropriate for grazing. At first, Moses is furious with the request, assuming they were maligning the promised land just as the ten spies had after returning from their reconnaissance mission. More importantly, Moses felt they were trying to shirk their duties as warriors. By hanging back across the river, they would not help their brothers in the conquest of the land. After some quick negotiation, the two sides reached an understanding that permitted each to have their interests met.
Indeed, we see in the book of Joshua that when the Israelites finally did conquer the land, Reuben and Gad settled just outside the borders, away from the rest of Israel. Little time passed before the rumors began to fly. Reports came back to Joshua that these proto-diasporic tribes had built an illegal altar to another god. Treachery! Tempers flared as the Israelites prepared to go to war with their brothers.
Luckily for everyone, bloodshed is averted — and by the unlikeliest of peacemakers. The zealot Pinchas, who in last week’s Torah portion drives a spear through the stomach of one of his sinning brethren, goes to speak with the cowboys across the river to uncover their intentions.
Too often we make assumptions about the true intentions of others. Your friend didn’t text you back right away? You must have done something to upset them. You weren’t invited to a meeting at work? Your boss must be trying to freeze you out. Part of your nation has built an altar across the river? They must be worshipping a foreign god.
Motive asymmetry is the all-too-common phenomenon of assuming that we operate from pure motivations while the motivations of others are nefarious. Rabbi Elka Abrahamson says this tendency is common in charged conflicts. “We can’t progress as a community with this asymmetry,” she asserts. “It’s impossible.”
But there is a simple (though not always easy) way to know what someone’s true intentions are. Ask them. And that is exactly what Pinchas did. And how did the tribes respond? They were mortified to think anyone would assume their altar was for other gods. “God, the Lord God! God, the Lord God!” they wailed, similarly to how we might feel when confronted with such a question. Because Pinchas tested his assumptions, the tribes were able to explain that they built the altar to the God of Israel as a testament to their loyalty since out of concern that it would be questioned since they lived so far away.
Alan Morinis, a teacher of the Jewish practice of character development known as Mussar, teaches that one goal of spiritual maturity is “increasing the space between the match and the fuse.” The separation of match from fuse in this Torah portion averted a tragedy.
Pinchas is a complicated character in the Torah, but in this case, he modeled genuine curiosity about the stories, motivations and explanations of others. This reminds us that by simply asking other people about these things, we allow ourselves the time and perspective to respond to real information, avoid misunderstandings, and ultimately engender more solid and positive relationships.