Numbers 30:2 – 32:42

This portion describes the Israelite’s war against the Midianites.


THE BLESSING OF MATTOT is well-hidden beneath a dark and terrible story of vengeance. “The last thing you will do before you die,” God whispers to Moses, “is to manifest the battle that has been raging within you.”

When Mohammed talked of Jihad, Holy War, he described the “Lesser Jihad,” the battle that we wage outside of ourselves, and the “Greater Jihad,” the battle that we must face within. All the holy wars that we fight, all our enmity and fierce devotion to the cause of destroying one another, can be traced back to the true battle raging within us. That inner battle rages on beneath our awareness, yet its power, projected out on the “other,” fuels the injustices of the world. When those injustices become so dramatically evident and painfully obvious, it is possible to have a blessed moment of stunned awareness that sends us within, in search of the source of this madness. It is at this moment that the blood that is on our own hands shocks us awake. It is when the furious words that come out of our mouths are so clearly contradictory to our professed values, that we are forced to acknowledge our “Greater Jihad,” the war that rages inside us.

MOSES RAISES AN ARMY and launches a war of revenge against the Midianites. After killing all the Midianite men, taking the women and infants prisoner, burning the Midianite cities and seizing the Midianite wealth, the army returns. They are greeted by Moses who is furious. “What! You let the women live?!” he demands. And then he commands the army to murder all the mature women and the male infants.

In this terrible moment, that contradicts all the laws of mercy and kindness, that overturns even the laws of warfare; in this moment of witnessing the awful cruelty unleashed by unrestrained power, even the most callous among us must begin to wonder, “What is the source of this hatred? What is fueling this obsession? How can it be stopped?”

We look to the life-story of Moses for answers. The name of this portion means “Tribes.” Where do we find our identity? How is that identity sustained? How is it threatened?

MOSES GREW UP WITH TWO IDENTITIES: Egyptian prince, and child of Hebrew slaves. When he left Egypt, for all intents and purposes he himself became a Midianite. Moses married Tzippora, a Midianite woman. And his father-in-law Yitro became his teacher. The Midianite tribe became his family. Legend has it that he lived there as a shepherd for 40 years, learning and growing into his calling as prophet.

Whenever we try to reject a part of ourselves, that part becomes our shadow. The shadow is the part of us that is hidden from the light of consciousness. In that moment when blind fury unfolds into hatred against the other, we can be sent from the Lesser Jihad, from the battle in the world, to the Greater Jihad — the battle within. We are jarred into the realization that the external battle is only a dim reflection of the inner battle that has been raging all along. Once exposed, the shadow can be healed.

Only when we acknowledge the warring tribes within us, can we begin to make peace, first in ourselves and then in the world. A moment of tragic cruelty, illuminated by the light of humility and wisdom, becomes a hard-earned blessing. In that moment, our identity expands from tribal to universal. In that moment, our tribal identity becomes transparent. The structure of that identity still gives us meaning and comfort, but we can also see right through it and celebrate the many tribes that constitute the human family, all of us interconnected, bound to each other through our shared humanity.

The moment when Moses’ cruelty is unmasked, and we see a man at war with himself, is a moment of blessing. The moment when Moses’ violent turmoil is revealed, we see a man who has rejected a part of himself. This is a moment of blessing. In this moment the spiritual work of healing begins.

LET US REMEMBER that the Torah is not a story about someone else and it is not about some other time. It is a map of the inner landscape. It is a revelation, shining the light of awareness on all the myriad facets of human experience. AND IT IS HAPPENING IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT. If we are to truly receive the blessing of Torah, we must take the opportunity of our shock at Moses’ cruelty to unmask and face our own capacity to dehumanize the other. The story of Mattot shows us that our own cruelty is the result of an inner struggle long buried by our defenses and denial. In that struggle, our tribal identity is rendered opaque. Our identity becomes a shield and a weapon; a shield against the truth of our human vulnerability, and a weapon against the “stranger.”

WE FIND THE BLESSING of Mattot in the fact that although the Torah tells us of Moses’ command to kill the women and children, it doesn’t tell us whether this order was ever carried out. Each of us must search within and discern our own capacity for cruelty born of our personal confusions, conditioned misperceptions and brokenness. Yet ultimately, it is up to us whether those shadows will birth tragedy. It is up to us to decide whether or not their orders will be carried out.

When I listen for the negativity of my shadow side and encounter a voice of hatred or jealousy or an urge for revenge, I must avoid reacting with blame, shame or recrimination. My response must be compassion for myself. Only when my remorse is healthy can it become a blessing. For only then will I have the reserve of compassion to annul the command of cruelty.


I ONCE TAUGHT A WEEKLONG RETREAT called “The Path of Devotion.” People from many different tribes attended. Though every one had a different religious practice, and came from a different culture, by the end of the week we had fallen in love with each other. We were amazed to feel so close to people from different faith traditions. What connected us was a shared experience of devotion, surrender, gratefulness and service to the Great Mystery around which all our traditions revolve. Because we did not have a shared language, we entered into the place beyond language. Because we did not have a shared practice, we stepped into each others practices looking for beauty, looking for the familiar essence that transcends form. Because we had no shared history, we stepped into the sacred NOW. Many of the participants remarked that they actually felt a closer connection to others on the Path of Devotion than they did to those of their own tribe.

I left that retreat and went directly to a Jewish retreat center to teach a Jewish workshop. I felt at first as if my world had suddenly gotten much smaller. I felt a terrible sense of claustrophobia. It was depressing to feel so cramped and confined, compared to the expansiveness I had experienced the week before. I spent a couple days in crisis, feeling the spiritual challenge of Mattot, of “Tribe.”

Then something wonderful happened. I had a vision of my tribe as a crystal palace. I could see its complex and beautiful structures, feel its strength surround me and glory in its form. In the next moment I shifted my gaze just ever so slightly and could suddenly see through the form to the dazzling expanse beyond it. I saw the sky filled with stars, each star shining its unique light. My own tribal structures became windows through which my consciousness could soar. And with another slight shift of my gaze I could focus again on the magnificent forms that held and supported me.

After this vision I returned to my Jewish teaching, to my tribal exploration, with a sense of gratefulness and renewed inspiration.

WITH SOME PRACTICE we can become aware of both perspectives at once, both the Tribal and the Universal.

I sometimes get letters from people who have had experiences in which they discovered their true nature as infinite beings connected to everything and everyone. After seeing this truth, they wonder, “How can I return to my tribe of origin? Why should I return? Haven’t I grown beyond the pettiness of Religion and tribal consciousness?”

I share my own experience of this dilemma. As members of a tribe, we have to face the accumulated shadow of our people, built up over millennia. It’s very messy work. Stepping outside the tribe we may feel suddenly free of the burden of history, guilt, expectation, neurosis. Yet I suspect that this “freedom” is shallow. Underneath our newly universal perspective, the tribal consciousness lays buried, unhealed, waiting for a crisis to trigger it. Then it will emerge unbidden, turning us inside out, revealing whatever it is inside us that we have been trying to avoid.

To accept oneself as a member of a tribe is to step onto the path of the particular. Traveling that path inward with eyes and heart wide open, you will eventually find yourself in the garden of universal consciousness. There, the truth of our oneness and connection is made unquestionably apparent. I don’t have a lot of faith in short-cuts. It is the journey itself that heals us.

There is no other way to reach God’s perfection except through the shattered flaws and brokenness of our individual Human experience. There is no way to our Divinity except through our Humanity. And our Humanity consists of layers of identity — an inheritance of both blessing and challenge.

AS I RISE TO THE CHALLENGE OF MATTOT, I must accept my place in a particular body, family, tribe, and nation, with the responsibility of healing their particular distortions and uncovering their distinct treasures.

We engage in this work for ourselves, for our ancestors, and for our descendants. The other side of Mattot‘s challenge is to remember the Oneness and interconnectivity that is our true nature. This remembrance of the Universal must inform each step we take on the path of the Particular. This remembrance ensures that the values of the Tribe will be continually refined, until the good of the Tribe becomes the good of All.


There are two practices for this week of Mattot. First, you explore your identity and the influence of the Tribe.

The second practice is a very powerful practice of surrender that I learned from my teacher, Paul Ray. With this practice we can reach beneath the layers of identity that we have accumulated over a lifetime of tribal living. It is a temporary disrobing of the garments of our identity so that we may experience our bare-naked existence.

Layers of Identity Practice

EXPLORE THE MANY LAYERS OF IDENTITY that may lay buried beneath the ground of your personality.

THIS MAY BE ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH JOURNALING, or better yet, find a Spirit-Buddy, preferably someone who knows you well and can reflect back to you some of your blind spots. One by one, investigate the layers of your identity. (See the Spirit Buddies page for an explanation of this aspect of practice.)

ASK SOME QUESTIONS, such as: “How has this identification affected my perception of others? What baggage does this identification carry with it? What beliefs about myself grow from this aspect of my identity?

LAYERS OF IDENTITY INCLUDE race, gender, religion, nationality, class, region, or lifestyle. And there may be other more subtle identifications that affect our perceptions of self and other. I may see myself as an outsider, or an artist, or an intellectual, or a rebel, as a liberal, or an environmentalist, or a feminist… . All these definitions delineate a particular “Tribe” with boundaries, qualifications and expectations that determine who is included and who is excluded.

THE GOAL OF THIS EXPLORATION is to become of aware of the many facets of your identity and understand the influence of the Tribe in shaping your attitudes, behavior, and self-image.

The Bowing Out of Names Practice

THIS IS A BOWING EXERCISE. We will be reciting names for ourselves as we bow.

BEGIN BY SITTING IN A CHAIR or kneeling on the floor.

WHEN YOU BOW DOWN, let the force of gravity move you and when you lift yourself up, be careful to roll up from the bottom of your spine to the top, so that you don’t hurt your back.

WITH EACH DOWNWARD BOW, you exhale and say, out loud, one of your names that represents a layer of your identity or a name that you’ve been called. There are so many names and roles and identities that we’ve internalized over the years, and this is an opportunity to surrender all of them, one by one.

AS YOU COME UP, YOU CAN INHALE and breathe in the pure content-less Presence of God that fills the empty space within you.

I MIGHT START BY BOWING OUT: Shefa… Jew… American… rabbi… writer… musician… wife… sister…. I would also include adjectives, some of them might even contradict each other: smart… not smart enough… open… compassionate… tumultuous… silly… too serious, and so forth.

WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF NAMES, (and it may take a while), sit in the silence and emptiness of just being.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.