Posts Tagged 'Matot'

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.

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?

End It

My Opa used to say,” Never start a fight, always end it”. Alfred Katz was revered as a regal, wise, and peaceful man. In my memory was a European Solomon, looking for ways out of conflict.

In Matot, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Phinehas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. (Numbers 31:6)

Why did they single Phinehas out? To this question Rashi said that this tells us that Phinehas was as important as all of the rest of them. Rashi goes on to ask why did Phinehas go instead of Elazar the High Priest? Quoting Midrash Tanchuma Rashi wrote:

He who began the commandment, in the that he killed Cozbi  daughter of Zur, let him finish it

Phinehas was a powerful character. He represented a certain zealousness. He seemed to be all too willing to end something that he started.

My Opa was a German ex-pat who evaded the Holocaust by escaping Germany. His oft quoted maxim was often interpreted with less Gandhi and more Phinehas. It was not that you should “turn the other cheek“, rather if need be you should end a fight “with extreme prejudice“.

As I too quote my Opa often to my children I find myself wanting to teach both messages. We are a peaceful people who walk in the ways of Aaron, another Kohen Tzadik, and should pursue the ways of peace. But some times we need to stand up for ourselves and our ideals like Phinehas a different kind of Kohen. Violence is never excused, but being Jewish should not mean being impish. We need to model peace loving embodied Judaism which always stresses follow through.


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