You are on page 1of 5

Dvar Torah Matot / Masai 5769 Rabbi Maurice Harris

This Torah portion takes place at the end of the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The Jews are now on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses, at Gods command, reviews all the stages of the 40 year journey for the people, listing the various places they camped at from the day they left Egypt. Later, Moses instructs the Israelites 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 find them perpetually troublesome. God describes the geographical boundaries of the Promised Land, and names the leaders of each of the tribes of Israel who are to lead the way into the land. With the last words of this Torah portion, we reach the end of the fourth of the five books of the Torah, the Book of Numbers. Well begin the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, next week. As youve heard me say before, that book is made up of a series of final speeches that Moses makes to the Israelites during the last couple weeks of his life.

Focal point from 34:13 the word goral.

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 doesnt play dice with the universe. But apparently God did play dice with the allotment of the different regions of the Promised Land to the various Israelite tribes. In the book of Joshua, which is the first of the books of the Prophets, and which tells the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and taking over the Land of Canaan, we see the scene take place in which Moses successor, Joshua, casts lots to assign each of the different tribes their specific territories. This happened in the town of Shiloh. The specific 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 story of 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 land from the very beginning of the story. How odd that Gods instruction would be for a game of chance to determine who settles which region of the land. On the other hand, there are some pretty important moments elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that rely on the casting of lots. In the Book of Leviticus, we read about the special ritual for Yom Kippur involving the High Priest bringing two goats to the altar. The text reads as follows: 7 And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the ETERNAL at the door of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the ETERNAL, and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the ETERNAL, and offer him for a sin-offering. 10 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 ritual rules, God builds in an element of randomness and chance. Now I realize that some might argue that these scenes in which God tells people to cast lots arent really examples 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 boat that Jonah is aboard has become terrified of the deadly storm that has all but destroyed their 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, 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, goral, is also the word for fate. You dont just cast lots, you cast to see your fate. I dont even know if the Israelites had a concept of randomness. And yet, still, I cant help but notice, and marvel, at what we might take away from the idea of a God who builds a certain element of randomness and chance into the universe, and even into Gods greatest plans. Of course, I havent even mentioned whats probably the most famous of all the episodes 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, they cast the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, which is the month Adar Of course, thats from the Book of Esther. Purim, the early spring holiday that celebrates the story of Queen Esther, is named from the word 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 before they will go, with Joshua at their head, into the Promised Land. God explains that they will cast lots to determine which tribes get which territories within the land. Somewhere in this I feel there is a lesson about trusting and letting go. None of the chiefs of the Israelite tribes will be able to vie for a part of the Promised Land that his tribe prefers. Theres not advantage to be gained in courting favor with Moses, or with Joshua. They have no control either. All of them are commanded to participate in an exercise in which they have to throw their fate into mysterious hands and accept the results. Its a great 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 lesson she learned in her mid-thirties. She was already an academic physician, but she had taken some time to go to a retreat in Northern California. There were many artists working at their crafts at this particular retreat, and while she was there she learned how to forge metal jewelry. Perhaps it was a bit of a fluke, but it turned out that she made an exceptionally 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 a lot of praise even from other jewelers and artists who were also at the retreat center. When the retreat was over, she was driving down Californias coastal Highway 1 and happened upon a jewelers workshop. She met a kind older man who sat with her and discussed 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 when I feel like she decided to cast lots. After all, she didnt know this man. Maybe he was

trying to rip her off. Maybe this was a risk not worth taking. On the other hand, maybe this man had come into her life precisely so that she could become a jewelry artist, and this was going to be her breakthrough into a new and exciting field. She decided to leave her ring with him. The afternoon that she left, she drove down the coast in the midst of severe wind and rain. That night, the weather turned even worse, and she found out the next morning that part of Highway 1 had actually collapsed and fallen down steep cliffs into the Pacific Ocean below. To her horror, she heard a news report that the very jewelers studio where she had left her prized ring the day before had fallen down the cliff into the sea as well. Her ring, the most beautiful object she had ever created, was gone forever. At first, she felt nothing but loss. Id like to read her words as she concluded the story:

In anguish, I went to the edge of the cliffs and stood looking at the Pacific, still wild from yesterdays storm. Down there somewhere was my ring. As I watched the ocean hammer the cliffs, it began to occur to me that there was something rather natural, even inevitable, about what had happened. Pieces of the land had been falling into the ocean for millions of years. Perhaps all those familiar blaming voices were wrong. [She had described, earlier in her story, how she had kicked herself imagining some of her relatives accusing her of being foolish by leaving the ring with the man.] There was nothing at all personal in it, just some larger process at work. I looked at the place on my finger again. This time it really was an empty space. And silent. It was big. For the first time I faced a loss with a sense of curiosity. What would come to fill up this space? Would I make another ring? Or would I find another ring in a secondhand shop, or even in another country? Perhaps someday someone I had not even met would give me a ring because he loved me. I was 35 years old and I had never trusted life before. I had never allowed any empty spaces. Like my family, I had believed that empty spaces remained empty. Life had been about hanging on to what you had Anything I had ever let go of had claw marks on it. Yet this empty space had become different. It held all the excitement and anticipation of a Christmas present.

Of course, in my case it would have to be a Hanukkah present. December holiday issues aside, I think what Dr. Remens story teaches in relation to our Torah portion is that life gives us these moments when we cast our own lots. We get to turn to the right or the left, or keep going in the same direction, but whatever we do weve thrown the dice. Weve been granted the opportunity to influence our lives, but not control them. Sometimes we cant even influence them all we can do is cast our lots and discover our fate. If that fate involves loss, Dr. Remen invites us to honor the feelings of that loss, but also to approach the loss with curiosity. The lots are cast, the dice land on the table, and we find out whats next. Dr. Remen reminds us that the results of the spin of the wheel are not necessarily personal, and that there may be new and un-thought of gifts or joys will emerge from the path ahead of us, even as we grieve the loss. May we turn to one another for strength along the path, with Gods help. Shabbat shalom.