The parasha Matot takes the name of a word in the opening verse: Numbers 30:2, Moses instructing the heads of the tribes (rashei ha-mattot) of Israel. We encounter two words for tribe in our holy Torah. The first is matei, plural matot, which gave the parasha its name this week, and the second is shevet. My teacher brought down this: Both these words for tribe are actually words that signify a branch, or a staff, the branch of a tree. How does branch become tribe? Perhaps the branch which became a staff served as some sort of emblem for the tribe; the tribal staff, the tribal stick, the tribal totem. Remote but possible.
Or something else, the tree that is constituted by branches, the branch that is broken off, separated from the tree, as in the condition of exile. Now we have a sense of separation and exile in the notion of tribe, in addition to the idea of a totem. Or perhaps all branches are derivative of the tree of life, the people. What is the relation of the tribe, the branch, the staff, to the people, to the nation?
The shevet is soft, supple, moist, it maintains something of the life of the tree from which it comes. The matei, however, is dried out, it is strong but it is inflexible.
Then my teacher brought down this: The distinction between soft, moist and dried out, inflexible pertains to the soul’s journey in the world, also to the exile of the partial from the whole, also to Israel’s journey among the nations. Just as the soul is sometimes soft and moist to its divine origins, there are souls that are dried out and far away from their divine moistness.
So too, in Israel’s story of exile, there is the exile that maintains its connection with its source and a sense of exile that is so far away and so disconnected that all connection seems to have dried out. There is also the sense of the tribe that is inflexible to its origins, just as other tribes either are or are not softening to their origin in the tree of life.
This also suggests a strategy for reconciliation and peace-making, turning the matei into the shevet, bringing the hard inflexibility of separation into moistness and relation with the source, drawing the definitions to bring parties into relation with each other at the level of matei, trusting that the process will one day lead to shevet.
I am searching for peace-making imagery everywhere, even the obscure images. Why? Because I need it. Because I believe it. Because I can see it.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom prepared this week’s Torah Portion.