This is the double parsha of Matos-Masai. Matos means tribes, and also means staffs. A staff symbolizes stability and permanence, like a staff that is hard and strong. Masai means "journeys" and implies a changing and non-permanent situation. The Lubavitcher Rebbe has said that the combination of names of the two parshas we read together today teaches that even when we are traveling on a journey, like a vacation or business trip, we must be as vigilant and steadfast and unchanging in our religious observance as when we are at home.
The first aliyah discusses laws of verbal vows by means of which someone obligates himself or herself with a vow. Such a person must do all that he vows. Then the aliyah gives the laws of a woman who makes a vow and how her husband or father, under certain circumstances, can overturn such vows.
The Torah continues with G-d commanding Moshe to take revenge against the Midianites, after which time Moshe shall pass away. This aliyah describes the war taking place with an army of 12,000 Jews. All adult males of Midian as well as their five Kings are killed in this battle. The non-Jewish prophet Bilam, who was the main subject of parsha Balak that we read two weeks ago, dies in this war.
The second aliyah discusses the purification of the soldiers and the spoils of war from contact with the dead.
The aliyah continues with the spoils of the war with Midian being divided equally between the soldiers and the community. From the half of the spoils of war going to the soldiers, 1/500 is given to Elazar the priest as an offering to G-d. From the other half, which is for the community, 1/50 is given to the Levites.
The officers of the army did a census of the soldiers and determined that not a single man was lost in the war and therefore they, the officers, gave a special offering to G-d.
The third aliyah begins by stating that the tribes of Reuvein and Gad have a lot of cattle. They see that the side of the Jordan that they are on now, before crossing the Jordan River into Israel, is an ideal place for so much cattle. They therefore ask Moshe if they can have their inheritance outside of Israel, on this side of the Jordan. Moshe answers them that this is like the matter of the spies, in that their not wanting to go into the land of Israel will discourage everyone else from wanting to proceed into the land. They reply to Moshe that they will leave their cattle and families here, but their men will go with the other Jews into Israel and conquer it with them. And only after all the rest of the Jews inherit their land, they will return to this side of the Jordan.
In the fourth aliyah, Moshe accepts the offer of the tribes of Reuvein and Gad to go to battle for the land of Israel with the rest of the Jews, after which they will return and inherit land on this side of the Jordan. So in this aliyah these tribes are given land for the families and cattle to be safeguarded while they go across the Jordan with everyone else.
(This aliyah now continues into parsha Masai.)
At the beginning of parsha Masai the Torah recounts the journeying of the Jews in the desert. Rashi says that of the 42 journeys listed here, only 20 were after the decree to wander in the desert until Aharon passed away, and that prevents anyone from saying that the Jews were made to wander continuously, without rest.
In the fifth aliyah G-d tells the Jewish people that when they cross the Jordan, they should drive out the inhabitants of the land and destroy their idols and occupy the land of Israel. And in this aliyah is the pussok: "If you do not drive out the land's inhabitants before you, those who remain shall be barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, causing you troubles in the land." This aliyah also contains a description of the boundaries of the land.
In the sixth aliyah G-d appoints men to be in charge of the dividing up of the land for the inheritance of the Jews.
The Jews are commanded to take from the land that they are given as an inheritance and give cities to the Levites to live in.
In the seventh aliyah G-d commands the Jews to designate six cities to be cities of refuge. The purpose of these six cities of refuge is that when someone kills someone else inadvertently, they can run to one of these cities and be safe from vengeance until they can stand trial. The Torah then goes on to give laws of purposeful murder, for which the penalty is death. If someone is determined by trial to be an inadvertent killer, he is returned to the city of refuge and remains there until such a time as the High Priest passes away.
G-d gives the commandment that when daughters inherit their father's land, as in the case of Tzelafchad's daughters, they must marry only someone from their own tribe, so the land they inherit will remain in their father's tribe. As a result of this commandment, Tzelafchad's daughters marry their cousins within their tribe.
This aliyah completes the book of Bamidbar. In a synagogue, the congregation stands during the reading of the last part of the aliyah, and when the Torah reader reaches the end of the aliyah the congregation recites: "Chazak Chazak V'Nischazek" -- as we do at the end of each one of the five Books of the Torah. Next week we begin reading the book of Devarim.