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Parashat Hashavua for Matot-Masei 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Matot-Masei 

Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria

Writing from Melbourne, where Covid restrictions have returned stringently, we are reflecting on the rate and variety of decision making that allows for or prevents travel within and beyond Australia. As lax restrictions clearly correlate to higher infection numbers and as rates of recovery vary widely from country to country, much has been decided and imposed. Israel’s Ministry of Health Covid guidance (in Arabic, Russian, English and Ivrit) begins with pictographs of mask, sanitizer and 2m distancing, followed by firm “recommendations” about daily-updated Regulations. The protocol for visiting Grandparents is particularly helpful.

Jonathan Sacks could not have known that his latest book, “Morality” would launch into a world of Covid and how timely its subtitle, “Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times” would be. Having largely cooperated with authorities during Pesach and Shavuot, having cancelled large gatherings for both joys and sorrows since March, the Jewish community – like all others – is reflecting on the process by which public health decisions have been mandated, gently eased and then reimposed from place to place. The public good is driving decisions for the collective and there is clear hardship for many individuals as a result.

The opening section of Matot startles, in this 2020 context. A man’s vows bind him in pledge. Women’s vows are mediated through the opinions of their fathers and husbands. Encountering the familiar discouragement against making vows, the object lesson of Jephtah and his daughter (Judges 11:31) resonates. But in a time of shared communal obligation and spiritual refocussing by many, what are we to make of the process by which personal vows by women (in regard to religious observances and self-imposed obligations) may stand in their own right? For evidently experienced women, widows and divorcees, their vows are autonomous. For evidently inexperienced younger women, should their fathers hear of and object to a chosen obligation, the daughter is subject to paternal override. Wives may make vows but husbands can annul them, providing they act swiftly upon hearing of proposed commitments. Objections have to be lodged on the very day the husband or father hears of those vows.

Sinai husbands either affirmed or decried their wives’ promises within 24 hours. Given the speed of government decision making needed to keep up with pandemic responses this year, we see a Biblical equivalent of our 24-hour news cycle. Despite transparent sharing of intentions to fulfil additional religious tasks, women might be subject to refusal by their menfolk, providing the response was swift and decisive. The immediate transition to battle against the Midianites reminds us that we are also fighting; an analogous Covid combat, for which we have prepared ourselves and support others spiritually and practically to meet the challenge of various restrictions and losses, recoveries and reunions. Matot’s laws require swift and authoritative response to promises. Whatever considered obligations men and woman take on now, as additional service to God and our community, may their fruit be for the common good, an affirmation of holiness in divided times.

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