A Bittersweet Name
August 1, 2019
Beis Moshiach in #1176, Parsha of the Future

By Rabbi Nissim Lagziel

A Joke to Begin With…

One morning, a Yiddishe Mameh woke up her young son: “Bubbele, you have to wake up and get ready for school.” A few minutes later, “Ziskeit, go brush your teeth. Sheifaleh, don’t forget your breakfast.” Then, just before the boy left the house, his mother turned to him and said, “Tzaddikl, learn well today.”

When he returned home from school, his mother asked him, “Yingele, how was your day in yeshiva? What did you learn?”

The child replied: “I learned that my name is Yitzy…”


Parshas Matos opens with the laws of making vows, followed by the story of the war against Midian. As the Torah portion continues, it teaches us about the order of dividing the spoils of the war and the laws of immersing and kashering vessels. At the conclusion of the parsha, the Torah speaks about the request of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to receive their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and how Moshe Rabbeinu responded to them.

We are familiar with the teaching of the holy Shelah that there is a profound connection between the weekly Torah portion and the time of year when it is read. Parshas Matos is always read during the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av (known as “Bein HaM’tzarim”), when the Jewish People mourn for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the continuing exile. How are Parshas Matos and Bein HaM’tzarim connected?

Chassidus teaches us that the essence of something is hidden in its name (as with Yitzy, for example…). A name is not merely some means of identification; it is the channel for the vitality and being of the object called by that name. So too we find with the names of the weekly portions of the Chumash – the essence of a given parsha is concealed within its name. Thus, when we want to find out about the inner meaning of Parshas Matos, we need to contemplate about and derive lessons from the name “Matos” (or “Mateh” in singular). 

What exactly is a “mateh”?

In the Holy Tongue, the word “mateh” has numerous interpretations. On the one hand, it is synonymous with a “staff” – a tree branch. On the other hand, in this week’s parsha, as in other places of Torah, the word “Matos” refers to the tribes of Israel, and each tribe in its own right is called a “mateh.”

The Hebrew language has another word with exactly the same double meaning – “shevet”, referring to the tribes of Israel, as well as a synonym for a tree branch.

In our holy Torah, everything is amazingly precise. Why did the Torah choose to call the tribes of Israel in our parsha by the name “Matos”, and not by the more common and widespread name – “Shvatim”?

We can answer this question only after rationally understanding the difference between the words “shevet” and “mateh.”

Chassidus provides a marvelous explanation of the concept. “Shevet” is a soft branch that still draws moisture from the tree, whereas “mateh” symbolizes the branch after it has been completely cut off from the trunk and its moisture is all dried up.

The “tree” we speak about is not just a physical tree, but also alludes to something spiritual, the Divine source for all Jewish souls – Hashem Himself. These names express two conditions within the Jewish People: When the connection between Jewish souls and the Hashem is known and revealed, they are called “shvatim — moist branches”, but when the connection is hidden and concealed, the Jewish People are “dried up” and are called by the name “matos.”

These two sets of circumstances relate to two general periods of Jewish history: the time of the Beis Hamikdash and the time of the exile. When the Beis Hamikdash stood erect, the Jewish People were in a state of “shevet” – joined and connected to their spiritual source. They saw, felt, and lived G-dliness in the fullest sense. In contrast, during exile, when, as the Navi describes it “we have not seen our signs” — the Jew does not see G-dliness; on the contrary, he sees concealment – difficulties caused by hindrances and obstacles to the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos. We are then called by the name “mateh”…

We can now understand why the Torah chose to use the name “Matos”. This parsha is always read during the Three Weeks, a time when we feel like a “mateh” – detached, cut off, isolated, sad and gloomy over the loss and destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

However, specifically due to this detachment and separation, we find a remarkable, important, and marvelous quality in the “mateh”, a quality that no one else has – the quality of toughness, strength, and fortitude!

It is specifically during the exile that a Jew’s inner strength is revealed. Regardless of all the problems and obstacles placed before him as he tries to fulfill Torah and mitzvos, he presses on with determination, full force, and greater intensity. Specifically due to the apparent spiritual descent and distance from the source of G-dliness, the soul reveals greater strengths that had been concealed within it, thereby reaching higher spiritual levels. The troubles of this world and the temptations of the Yetzer Hara ironically awaken the “mateh” within a Jew’s soul, the firmness and resolve to remain connected to G-d despite all the difficulties. Then, the soul attains a far deeper connection to Hashem.


We have another “staff” during the Three Weeks: the staff read about last week in the Haftarah of Parshas Pinchas, the staff of an almond tree seen by Yirmiyahu in his prophecy. By its nature, the almond tree produces very bitter fruits, to the point of being inedible. In fact, the required period of ripening is twenty-one days (three weeks!) in order for the almonds to become sweet and edible. We thereby learn that the essential attribute of the almond tree is to transform the bitter into sweet, evil into good, drakness into light. The allegory of the almond tree rod seen by Yirmiyahu teaches us that to change the bitterness of Bein HaM’tzarim into joy, we must conduct ourselves as a “mateh”, a staff with inner strength and resilience in all matters of Yiddishkeit and mitzvah observance. We must not be soft (or weak…), “collapsing” as the slightest wind blows. We must stand firm in defense of the Torah and the Yiddishe Neshama, and only then can we “ker a velt heint” and bring the True and Complete Redemption.

To Conclude with a Story

We will conclude with a story about the true strength revealed because of a temporary separation…

When the Rebbe Rayatz was about seven or nine years old, he suffered a great deal when his father was away from home for lengthyperiods of time due to his health. During these absences, he was taught by three melamdim, one of whom was the famous mashpia, Reb Chanoch Hendel Kugel. On one occasion, R’ Hendel severely admonished him for a certain thing he had done, and the Rebbe Rayatz took the matter to heart very acutely. The melamed’s rebuke led the young Yosef Yitzchak to fasting for three days; he was very upset and cried uncontrollably.

R’ Hendel was very troubled by this reaction, and he sent an urgent letter to the Rebbe Rashab, who was then staying in Austria. In his reply to R’ Hendel, the Rebbe Rashab wrote: “You can’t imagine what pleasure my soul derived from the letter I received – about the boy’s crying.”

Harsh measures, sometimes, bring out our best…

This is true education, coming from a sense of true love and revealing the true essence of each and every one of us.

Good Shabbos!

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 33, Parshas Matos.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
See website for complete article licensing information.