Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Many of you know this, but for those who don’t, I’m beginning a transition from the congregational rabbinate to a new role as Director of Spiritual Care Services (e.g., chaplaincy) at Vassar Brothers Medical Center. I will be starting part-time at the hospital, directing a team of chaplains and interns, in August, and then join up full time after Sukkot. In the meantime I’ll do my best to offer some Torah commentary.
Despite the time crunch of two jobs and a busy family, the real challenge in writing a weekly commentary is finding teachings of hope and compassion in our tradition at a time when the world seems so cruel and dark. From kidnappings in Israel (of both Jew and Arab) to the war with Hamas to the apparently accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner in Ukraine, it’s hard to know the religious response to violence and conflict.
Yet as Ben Bag-Bag (yes, that’s really his name) said inPirkei Avot, referring to the Torah, “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” This week’s Torah portion, Matot, has three primary topics: vows, in chapter 30; the war against the Midianites, in chapter 31; and preparations for the conquest of the Land, in chapter 32. (See link in second line above for translation of the parsha.) Let’s begin with vows and connect the first two themes of our portion.
Right at the beginning of our portion, Moshe is commanded to tell the people about keeping vows:
Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is the thing Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge . . . .
The rabbis notice the unusual phrasing “this is the thing,” [ze ha'davar] and offer an interpretation that “this is the thing” distinguishes how a sage annuls a a vow (another person’s vow, as a court procedure) from how a husband annuls a vow for a wife. (See Rashi on this versehere.) In other words, before we even get to the part which says that we must not break our vows, the rabbis inform us that there IS a way to be released from our vows! As my colleague Rabbi Gail Labovitzdemonstrates, the rabbis learn that the Torah permits the revocation of vows from a verse in which God repents of Divine anger against the people Israel, and if God needs to revoke vows, how much more the rest of us!
As Rabbi Labovitz points out, the rabbis have to find a way for people to annul their vows because people make rash, foolish, inappropriate and cruel vows. We act out of our anger, fear, hatred, anxiety or other emotions, and create situations with dire consequences. So the ancient sages created a safety valve in certain situations, to protect us from ourselves.
As I see it, among the vows which should be broken are vows of vengeance, and this is the subject of the next part of our Torah potion. At the beginning of chapter 31, God tells Moshe to “avenge the Israelites against the Midianites,” and let’s be clear, the verb used [nekamah] means vengeance, not justice, and the story that follows describes the wholesale slaughter of men and women alike. Apparently the desire for vengeance comes from the Midianites role in seducing Israelite men to idolatry (there’s some role for the Moabites there, too, but leave that aside for now.) inchapter 25.
Moshe is told to take vengeance for the Israelites, and then he will die. Regardless of what we believe about how a just God could possibly command bloody vengeance, it strikes me as a deep truth that vengeance leads to death for both parties. I’m not talking about a simplistic notion of a “cycle of violence,” though that may apply. Rather, Moshe will take vengeance, but it will not be a life-giving experience for him or the people Israel. Justice is focused, procedural, proportional, and grounded in personal or social values. Vengeance is an expression of rage, and brings with it collective punishment, indiscriminate violence, and the invitation to respond in kind. Vengeance cannot satisfy.
This is why the ancient rabbis allowed us to annul certain vows- because we make them rashly, and then feel compelled to follow through. In Ukraine, in the Middle East, in other areas of conflict and war, cries of vengeance go up after every terrible act, but this solves nothing. Would that those who call out for blood would annul their own vows and seek justice instead. Justice may require war, but its aims are wholly different than revenge. That’s a hard and subtle distinction, but one which needs to be shouted from the rooftops and brought to the politicians, for the sake of our very world.