Matot-Massei, Numbers 30:2-36:13
Book-ended by a fast commemorating the beginning of the Romans' siege of Jerusalem, and another fast marking the city's destruction and the burning of the Holy Temple, the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av represent the darkest point in the Jewish people's history: Its banishment from the Land of Israel an the sacking of the holiest spot on earth.
This week's double Torah portion — the second half of which is always read during this three-week period — has exactly the opposite focus. It delineates all of the 42 journeys made by the Israelites in the desert, journeys that spiritually prepared them for entering their land.
And the portion goes beyond simply noting the locations along the way; it outlines a procedure for divvying up the territory according to tribe, thereby ensuring a continual connection between the land and its people.
The system — known as a goral in Hebrew — for portioning out the biblical Israel was nothing short of amazing. In the midst of commanding Elazar the High Priest and the 12 tribal leaders to conduct a randomized lottery, the Torah also commands that the more numerous tribes should receive larger portions, while those fewer in number should receive smaller territorial allotments.
In the end, each tribe received what was sufficient for itself in terms of its population and defining characteristic. So the tribe of Judah, the largest tribe, received the biggest allotment. And the tribe of Zevulun, whom Jacob blessed to "dwell at the shore of the sea," received the portion abutting the Mediterranean.
The Torah, in essence, required finite human beings to participate in an infinite process that was random and preordained at the same time. Chasidic thought explains this paradox by noting that the Torah itself is referred to at times as an inheritance — a purchase and a gift.
While inheriting and buying are two completely different processes, they are similar in that in both cases, the one who acquires does so because of some quality inherent in him or her: Either he now owns a house because he was the son of the house's former owner, or she now owns a car because she handed over its value in a monetary exchange.
Giving, though, is completely different. Instead of being a reflection of some innate quality on the part of the receiver, the act itself comes solely from the giver.
In the case of the Torah, the Jewish people inherit it, so to speak, simply because of its identity as the descendants of Jacob. The Torah can also be "acquired" through study and devotion.
But the Torah's highest level is expressed as a gift from above, a sublime reflection of Divine Will that transcends reason and goes beyond mortal efforts to comprehend it.
That doesn't mean that the Torah is free. Time and again, the sages speak glowingly of the merits of striving to understand the Torah, and Jewish law sets a minimum requirement for its study.
Receiving a portion in the Land of Israel, similarly, required human effort. An entire campaign was needed in order for the Jewish people to plant roots there.
Ultimately, though, the land was a gift — a reflection of an infinite Almighty and not of a finite earth.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.