Parsha in Advance: Matot (for week of July 30th)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot

Wonders upon wonders, I’m beating my own deadlines!

Here, as promised, is more parsha commentary in advance of its proper week- you
can
save this email for the week of July 30th, when we read parshat Matot. Matot is
usually
read with the next parsha, Ma’asei, but this year they are read separately.
Matot begins
with laws regarding the annulment of vows within a family, shifts to the story
of a war
against the Midianites, and ends with Moshe negotiating with the tribes of Gad
and Ruven
over their desire to settle east of the Jordan river.

The middle part of parshat Matot, Bamidbar/Numbers 31, tells us that God
commanded
Moshe to gather an army to wage a war of vengeance against the Midianites. The
army
spared no man and took the women captive; Moshe later reminds the officers that
it was
the women who tempted the Israelites to sin (cf. chapter 25), so many of the
women were
also killed, executed in captivity.

This is an unpleasant and difficult story. It’s very hard to reconcile this
narrative with the
Torah’s overarching ethic of compassion and justice, and in fact, I’m going to
suggest that
we not even try. Many commentators, from ancient days to more recent times, have
tried
to soften the history of this war, by enumerating reasons why the Midianites
deserved
what they got, or perhaps by allegorizing the story so that it’s really not
about a military
campaign at all. Others suggest that such stories are merely reflective of the
Torah’s roots
in real history; thus placing narratives of brutal conflict in their own
historical context
helps us understand that we cannot apply contemporary sensibilities to a very
different
world.

These are all valid approaches to dealing with this and other difficult pieces
of our
tradition, but I’d like to suggest another. Perhaps we should not soften,
contextualize, or
justify the hard texts, but confront them. Perhaps it’s part of our spiritual
work as a
people to look into even our most sacred stories and ask hard questions about
morality
and justice. (Without, of course, prejudging the answers.)

Consider this from the perspective of personal spiritual growth, which
necessarily involves
introspection and a fearless moral inventory. Becoming a mature human being
means
recognizing those parts of ourselves which we’d prefer to hide away, including
those
aspects of the human psyche linked to anger, resentment, revenge, grudges,
hurtful
habits, and harsh judgments. Spiritual growth means looking at things within
ourselves
that we’d rather explain away or avoid altogether, yet a basic premise of
Judaism is that a
loving God has given us the capability to transcend our inner fault lines, if we
will only
seek truth and forgiveness and continue our work of “cheshbon ha-nefesh, or
“soul-
accounting.”

I think what’s true for an individual is also true for our people: buried deep
within our
sacred texts and traditions are occasional remnants of things we’d rather not
look at,
things like violence, sexism, and xenophobia. We will grow as a people (and
within
particular communities) by confronting such texts honestly and fearlessly, and
recognizing
that even the Torah itself, because it is grounded in human history, reflects
human flaws
and failings. The promise of Judaism is not human perfection- that’s impossible.
The
promise of Judaism is that our faults are not our destiny- if we will seek
self-knowledge
without equivocation.

with blessings of peace,

rnjl

PS- here’s a different link for reading the Torah portion in translation- click
the top
underlined link for the translation on one page, and the underlined links for
the seven
sections for Hebrew and English:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/matot.html

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