Drash on Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei
Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Sydney, New South Wales
The final two portions of Sefer B’Midbar (Numbers) that are read in synagogues this Shabbat present the reader with material troubling to our modern sensibilities. Early in Parashat Matot, we are confronted by Biblical legislation concerning vows, oaths and promises taken by men and women respectively. While not absolute, in some circumstances men have the right to annul vows taken by their daughters and wives. The Torah appears, however, to place a caveat on the indiscriminate use of this “privilege”. Should they do so, (to annul or force her to break a vow), for a pre-pubescent young woman, for the betrothed (not yet married) or for a married woman, “he shall bear her iniquity…” (30:16).
Should you not wish while at the Shabbat table this week to delve into the Biblical thicket concerning vows, oaths and promises, you may prefer instead to reflect on the charming line delivered by Mary Poppins in the stage musical of the same name when she says to Jane and Michael: “That’s a pie-crust promise. Easily made, easily broken."
The second episode encountered in this week’s reading is the battle against Midian. Some may recall how, in chapter 25 of Numbers, immediately following the indelicate matter of Zimri (and Israelite) and Cozbi (a daughter of Midian), God demands of Moses to “harass the Midianites, and smite (defeat) them.” Here, the Midianites are the objects of a ferocious campaign; cities are destroyed, booty is captured and men are put to death. Initially, women and children are to be spared. Moses, however, is still not satisfied. He interrogates the troops and demands to know why they have “spared every female … the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 31:15-16).
The dovish among us should be distressed by what comes next. The decimation of the Midianites is nearly unrivaled. “Every male among the children and every woman who has known a man carnally” are killed. Only the female children who have not yet lain with a man are taken into possession.
This episode, while distasteful, provides us the opportunity to discuss the morality of war; what is permissible and impermissible in wartime; the distinction between wars of defense and conquest; obligatory wars and discretionary campaigns.
The third theme revolves around the request made by the tribes of Gad and Reuben to build pens for their livestock and cities for their children, outside the borders of Eretz Yisrael. Their request is initially met with resistance: "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (32:6). However later, a compromise is struck and the tribal leaders pledge to participate in the conquest of the land if permitted to remain East of the Jordan.
This allowance, and the events of recent weeks concerning the Kotel controversy, may prompt debate this Shabbat about Diaspora Jewry’s indispensible role in the affairs of the Jewish State.
Finally, in Parashat Masei, we are treated to a travelogue of all the many stops along the route from Egypt to Israel, told of Levitical cities and “refuge cities” (to retain those guilty of manslaughter and those fleeing an avenger), and confront an instruction given by God to “dispossess all the inhabitants of the land.” Those who within the camp of Israel may have been inclined to balk at this are warned that those who remain will be “pins in your eyes and thorns in your side” (33:55). How troubling. Does it bear any relationship with Israel’s current circumstances vis a vis her neighbours?
Notwithstanding all of this and in conclusion, some may prefer to engage in Torah table talk around the last subject taken up in our weekly readings, namely: the daughters of Zelophad, the five women who insisted on just treatment and a fair share of their father’s inheritance (cf. also Numbers 27).
In The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, editors Tamara Cohn Eshkenzi and Andrea Weiss “see this legacy in women such as Judith Eisenstein, who was the first to become a bat mitzvah in 1922, and in the first women ordained as rabbis: Regina Jonas (in 1935), Sally Preisand (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973), Sandy Sasso (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974), and Amy Eilberg (Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985)”. Can not this feistiness also to be discovered in the courage and persistence of the Women of the Wall, who have battled for recognition in Israel for more than 25 years?
From Sydney to Shanghai and all places in between, I wish you, Shabbat Shalom.