The double Torah reading of Matot-Masei feels like an anticlimax, particularly if we buy the notion that Deuteronomy in an important way is its own separate book. This should be the stirring ending to the narrative of the last four books. Yet here we have rules for vow-making, negotiations over living outside the borders of the land of Israel, establishment of cities of refuge, and the thrilling idea that one should not marry out of one’s own tribe. Aside from the war against Midian, this isn’t the stuff of thrilling conclusions.

Yet it’s important, and the general theme of these rules lies in the tension between individual needs and passions and communal responsibilities. In each case, an individual takes an action that puts a strain on the communal fabric. Marriage is not a personal act, but a communal one, and must therefore be undertaken with the community in mind. Similarly cities of refuge exist so that private matters–revenge killings–do not strain the communal structure. The dialogue between Moses and Reuben, Gad and Menashe also highlights this tension, as Moses insists that the tribes agree to fulfill their communal duties before their private wishes of living on the other side of the Jordan.

In the case of the war against Midian, Rashi offers us an insight into Moses’s personal struggle in this regard. We must first remember that Moses himself has a close connection with the Midianites, as his wife is one of them. And we must further bear in mind that Moses understands that upon fulfillment of this commandment he himself will die, as God clearly states: “Avenge the Israelites against Midian, afterward you will be gathered unto your people” (Num. 31:2). Rashi notes that the very next words are “And Moses spoke to the children of Israel,” to command them to make war against Midian: “Even though he heard that his death was tied up in the act, he carried out his orders happily and without delay.” That is to say, even in the ultimate moment of his life, with his own death around the corner, Moses puts communal priorities ahead of his own.

All of this is rooted in the opening of the parasha, with the commandment that whenever one makes a vow, “he shall not violate his word; all that leaes his mouth he shall do” (Num. 30:2). When we speak, when we make a promise, we commit ourselves to something larger than us. Our private world is now a part of the larger world through the medium of language and the concept of contracts and covenants. To live as an island, as John Donne reminds us, is impossible. As the Israelites are about to cross into the land of Canaan, this is the Torah’s major theme. It all comes down to keeping our word and living a live in responsibility to our fellow travelers.

Shabbat shalom: