Archive for the '4.08 Matot /Masai' Category

Holding Leaders Accountable: Words Matter

In Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, Moshe teaches the leaders of the tribes of Israel the laws governing the annulment of vows. I understanding the need these laws. We all make commitments that we cannot keep. As the saying goes, “A fellow who says he has never told a lie has just told one.” There in the parsha we read:

Moshe spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the 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; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. ( Numbers 30:2-3)

While there is plenty one could say about the challenges of setting additional limitations for oneself, I am more interested in the value of words to create commitment and to set up a system of accountability. While all of Israel was told “do not render a false oath in My name and thereby desecrate it”(Leviticus 19,12), why does the leadership get a special communication here?

Rashi’s answer to this is simple. He write:

This does not mean that he spoke only to the princes of the children of Israel and not to the people also, but that he showed respect to the princes by teaching them first and that afterwards he taught the children of Israel. ( Rashi on Numbers 30:2)

It seems by design politicians tell people what they need to get into power. It is hard not to see that our leaders always need additional instruction when it comes to over-promising and under-delivering. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union , said, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.” Here in the United States under our current alternative-facts administration we see that lying has again become a pillar of the State. Is this message in our Torah portion really about showing “respect to the princes”?

Our leaders need to know that words do matter. They routinely make oaths, create obligations, and make pledges, that other people need to pay for with their effort, money, or even their lives. Maybe the”respect to the princes” is that our leaders need to know that we are listening and watching. Our leaders need to know that ultimately they will be held accountable for their words, their deeds, and their leadership.

Authentic Return

We find ourselves in the drive toward Tisha b’Av. Liturgically that translates into a series of sad Haftarot. The haftorah we read for Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, is full of Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Israelites for being backsliders. It ends on an encouraging note, assuring the people that if they return to God with sincerity, they will be restored to their full glory. There we read:

If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, to Me, you shall return, and if you remove your detestable things from My Presence, you shall not wander. And you will swear, “As the Lord lives,” in truth and in justice and in righteousness, nations will bless themselves with him and boast about him. ( Jeremiah 4:1-2)

What is the metric for sincere return? You could assume that God would know, but how would an individual let a lone the nation know if they had experienced authentic redemption?

This line of questioning reminded me of something I had learned in Rambam’s Mishnah Torah with my my son recently. In a discussion of cultivated good character Rambam writes:

… he shall not be one thing with his mouth and another with his heart; but his inner and outer being must be the same, for the subject of the heart is the matter of the mouth… But man must be of true lip, steadfast spirit, and pure heart, free from all travail and clamor. ( Sefer De’ot 2:6)

If nothing else Rambam provides a way of measuring when something is inauthentic. If the insides are not like the outsides it is not authentic.  There is no doubt that our current state of representing ourselves online and in social media makes this increasing difficult. There is just so much sizzle and so little steak in how we see others and how we see ourselves. It is so difficult to allow ourselves to show up, let alone “return”. Each of us and all of us should strive to return to an authentic state of being true lipped, having a steadfast spirit, and being pure of heart.

-See more on Authenticity in a post on Ugly Delicious

Tumahlicious: Are You Ready?

In Jewish law, tumah and taharah are the state of being ritually “impure” and “pure” respectively. A person or object which contracts tumah is said to be tamei, and thereby unsuited for certain holy activities until undergoing predefined purification actions. In Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about all of the rules of what happened to the spoils of war. There we read:

And Eleazar the priest said to the men of war that went to the battle: ‘This is the statue of the law which the Lord has commanded Mosche: Howbeit the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, every thing that may abide the fire, you shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of sprinkling; and all that abide not the fire you shall make to go through the water. And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean, and afterward you may come into the camp.’  ( Numbers 31:21-24)

It is interesting how both the person who goes to war as the booty of war are impure. They both need to be cleaned physically and metaphysically before it can be in the camp. What is the connection between the people we are and the material acquisitions in our life?

This question got me thinking about the word booty itself. The word actually means something valuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war. But today it has taken another meaning. This meaning is best known  Destiny’s Child’s earworm  Bootilicious.

There in the chorus they sing, ” I don’t think you ready for this  ‘Cause my body too bootylicious for yo babe”. What does it mean that people talk about themselves or more specifically a part of their body that is something valuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war. While this song seems to empower the female protagonist to claim that the man in questions cannot handle her body, it still assumes that women’s bodies are objects to be won or stolen. What does this say about our cultural assumptions of sex and sexuality?

I am not trying to claim that Destiny’s Child or even modern sexuality is impure, but I do think it is worthy of reflection. Sex is not a subject to be shunned. Quiet the contrary, we have to work harder at bringing that conversation into the camp. Sex cannot be a means of objectification or be tainted by the violence of war. We do need to rethink the language, metaphor, and process of making sex a pure and meaningful act. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are you ready?

Doomsday Machine: Matot Masai and Voting Against Trump

In Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the horribly disturbing genocide of the Midianites. How can we understand Biblical justice  regarding the war against Midian particularly?  After the war the boys and women were brought back as prisoners of war. Moshe was upset with the soldiers and orders them to kill the boys and the women who are not virgins. Today we would call that a war crime. All the commentaries I have seen give answers I find troubling to some degree.

I am not sure that there is an answer, by searching for some shred of meaning in this horribly meaningless mass killing got me thinking about their situation wandering in the desert and their sense of fear. They were a group of landless and vulnerable refugees. Maybe killing the Midianites sent a clear message to all of the neighbors. Maybe it was some sort of deterrent. Do not mess with us.

This reminds of the scene near the end of Dr. Strangelove. A rogue missile was deployed at Russia and they are trying to stop a full out nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove says,” Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?” Ambassador de Sadesky replies,”It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.”  It is clear that Moshe had this power as the leader, but just because he could do this does not mean that he should have. Ultimately genocide begets genocide, violence begets violence, and hate begets hate.

Sadly it seems that Trump has not yet got that message. As Joe Scarborough reported recently, “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them.” This is troubling to say the least. This is no secret. If we have questions about Moshe’s leadership, I have none about Trump. Trump is unfit to govern or lead and he should not have his finger on the nuclear codes. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yes people are afraid and feel lost, but the answer is not hate, violence, and it certainly is not Donald Trump. Love Trumps Hate. Enough complaining lets get out the vote. Stop Trump.

 Thinking Out of the Box

How do we define space? Often is is easiest to go and pull out a map. Pictures just work in ways that words do not. See below at this map of the wonderful state of Wyoming.

But how might you define this space without a picture? Well, it is square landmass in the center of the United States of America. That is pretty accurate, but how would do you this for another state (and do not pick Colorado)? It is very hard to define these spaces with just words.

But, alas this is the project in Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Command the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land of Canaan, this shall be the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, even the land of Canaan according to the borders thereof.  Thus your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin close by the side of Edom, and your south border shall begin at the end of the Salt Sea eastward; and your border shall turn about southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, and pass along to Zin; and the goings out thereof shall be southward of Kadesh-barnea; and it shall go forth to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon; and the border shall turn about from Azmon unto the Brook of Egypt, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Sea.  And for the western border, you shall have the Great Sea for a border; this shall be your west border. And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you shall mark out your line unto mount Hor;  from mount Hor you shall mark out a line unto the entrance to Hamath; and the goings out of the border shall be at Zedad;  and the border shall go forth to Ziphron, and the goings out thereof shall be at Hazar-enan; this shall be your north border.  And you shall mark out your line for the east border from Hazar-enan to Shepham; and the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah, on the east side of Ain; and the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the slope of the sea of Chinnereth eastward; and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea; this shall be your land according to the borders thereof round about.’ (Numbers 34:1-12)

There are no straight lines. Without saying anything about the current geo-political issues in Israel, I can say that the Torah here is being simple without being simplistic. The biblical land of Israel is not Wyoming.This posses an interesting model as to how we define things that are complex which we might not have seen.

In light of SCOTUS’s decision to guarantees the right to same-sex marriage I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a post from a 4 years ago in discussion of Matot Masai, our Torah portion. Even if same-sex marriage is not sanctioned by Halacha, winning  the civil right to marry represents a human rights victory. It saddens me to see religious groups either going on the attack or recusing themselves from the discussion. Same-sex marriage is a great opportunity for the religious establishment to redefine the nature of marriage.

Why do they need to redefine marriage you ask? Well, simply put, marriage is not working. If current trends continue 40% or possibly even 50% of marriages will end in divorce. That is a staggering rate. Instead of defining it by excluding people, we need to enjoin people into a conversation of joining together for a the creation of a household build on common values. The institution of marriage is far too complex to make believe that it can be mapped out as easily as the straight borders of Wyoming.  Traditional forms of religion can live in their self imposed exile or join in and offer their wisdom.

I am confident that we all have a lot to learn about the contours of creating successful life long relationships. Life-long partnership needs to move beyond the infantile belief that  is just about creating babies ( yes I am in the hospital right now). It might not be a simple box, but can we picture a more mature understanding of life-long commitment?

 

Subtle Lesson of Midian

In Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the horribly disturbing genocide of the Midianites. How can we understand Biblical justice  regarding the war against Midian particularly?  After the war the boys and women were brought back as prisoners of war. Moses was upset with the soldiers and orders them to kill the boys and the women who are not virgins. Today we would call that a war crime. All the commentaries I have seen give answers I find troubling to some degree.

I am not sure that there is an answer, by searching for some shred of meaning in this horribly meaningless mass killing got me thinking about a linked topic. Who were these Midianites?  We first read about Midian, their progenitor in Genesis. There we read:

1 And Avraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah.  2 And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah.  3And Jokshan begot Sheba, and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim, and Letushim, and Leummim. 4 And the sons of Midian: Ephah, and Epher, and Hanoch, and Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 And Avraham gave all that he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of the concubines, that Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country.(Genesis 25:1-6)

Why did Avraham send his children away? It seems heartless.

On one level we see that these war crimes have a long history. It is even more interesting that this story is resonant with another story of scorn and the Avot, patriarchs. We learn in the Gemara:

Timna, the princess of Hor, yearned to join the tribe of  Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but they did not accept her. So she went to Esav, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than princess of another nation.’  Esav heeded her request and gave her to his son Eliphas as a concubine. Timna then bore Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because the Avot should not have rejected her for no reason. (Sanhedrin 99b)

Both Keturah and Timna are rejected. We go on to commit genocide again the descents of Midian. There seems to be a sort of justice in that we were almost exterminating in the story of Purim at the hand of Haman the descendant of Amalek.

So while it is obvious that genocide is a bad thing, can we not also learn the more subtle lesson of the effects of what happens when we reject people who are or want to join our tribe? George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While we need to be vigilant to fight meaningless bloodshed globally, we also need to work locally to make a more compassionate and welcoming society. When will we ever learn this lesson?

Thinking Out of Wyoming

How do we define space? Often is is easiest to go and pull out a map. Pictures just work in ways that words do not. See below at this map of the wonderful state of Wyoming.

But how might you define this space without a picture? Well, it is square landmass in the center of the United States of America. That is pretty accurate, but how would do you this for another state (and do not pick Colorado)? It is very hard to define these spaces with just words.

But, alas this is the project in Masai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 ‘Command the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land of Canaan, this shall be the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, even the land of Canaan according to the borders thereof. 3 Thus your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin close by the side of Edom, and your south border shall begin at the end of the Salt Sea eastward; 4 and your border shall turn about southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, and pass along to Zin; and the goings out thereof shall be southward of Kadesh-barnea; and it shall go forth to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon; 5 and the border shall turn about from Azmon unto the Brook of Egypt, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Sea. 6 And for the western border, you shall have the Great Sea for a border; this shall be your west border. 7 And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you shall mark out your line unto mount Hor; 8 from mount Hor you shall mark out a line unto the entrance to Hamath; and the goings out of the border shall be at Zedad; 9 and the border shall go forth to Ziphron, and the goings out thereof shall be at Hazar-enan; this shall be your north border. 10 And you shall mark out your line for the east border from Hazar-enan to Shepham; 11 and the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah, on the east side of Ain; and the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the slope of the sea of Chinnereth eastward; 12 and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea; this shall be your land according to the borders thereof round about.’ (Numbers 34:1-12)

There are no straight lines. Without saying anything about the current geo-political issues in Israel, I can say that the Torah here is being simple without being simplistic. The biblical land of Israel is not Wyoming.This posses an interesting model as to how we define things that are complex which we might not have seen.

Recently, the great state of New York joined the elite club of states that lifted the ban on same sex marriage. Even if this is not sanctioned by Halacha, to me this represents a clear human rights victory. It saddens me to see religious groups either going on the attack or recusing themselves from the discussion. Same sex marriage is a great opportunity for the religious establishment to redefine the nature of marriage.

Why do they need to redefine marriage you ask? Well, simply put marriage is not working. If current trends continue 40% or possibly even 50% of marriages will end in divorce. That is a staggering rate. Instead of defining it by exluding people, we need to enjoin people into a conversation of joining together for a the creation of a household build on common values. The institution of marriage is far too complex to make believe that it can be mapped out as easily as the straight borders of Wyoming.  Traditional forms of religion can live in their self imposed exile or join in and offer their wisdom.

I am confident that as the LGBT community joins the rest of us in the institution of marriage they will teach a lot about the contours of creating successful life long relationships. Maybe they can give us clear picture of what a positive marriage should be about. If nothing else same sex marriage might help us move beyond the infantile belief that life long partnership is about just creating babies. For a long time I have found it interesting that there is no little conversation about endogomy ( in-marriage ) in the LGBT and Jewish communities. If same sex couples can tell us the importance of finding a life partners that share our social/cultural/religious commitments, we might be able to move on to defining the importance of endogomy for the rest of the Jewish people. You would think that the traditional elements of our community would want to support this. Can you picture that?


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