Posts Tagged 'Matot'

Aquiring Meaning: Shabbat in the Wilderness

As the old joke goes:

A congregational Rabbi invites a young to cogregant to the synagogue for Havdalah. It is going to be a special Camp Shabbat. They are going to do the special camp tunes that the happy camper came to enjoy at their summers at Jewish summer camp. Despite all of the arguments the camper is just not interested in joining. When pressed by the Rabbi, the young person says, “It will just not be the same without the lake”.

It is challenging to get campers to connect to Jewish life after a summer at Jewish camp. How much harder is it going to be after months of being stuck at home on our screens and a summer without a summer of campfires, lakes, hikes, or immmersive experiences?

I was thinking about this when reading Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion. This week we end reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19 and many camps not being able to open up this summer, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all sheltering in place spending hours connected to our computer screens. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

Darwin Falls Wilderness - Wikipedia

For this I come back to the start with the Havdalah joke. I think we need to find ways of investing in Shabbat to help us create meaning during these difficult days. I take sollace in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man)

It was never about the space of camp. We need to look past the campfire ( fire), lake (water), or hiking( wilderness) of camp to make meaning where we are. Shabbat is a time for us to explore our passion for the people in our lives (fire). If we keep it special, Shabbat can be a 26 hour immersive experience (water). It is also a time we get to rest and reflect on the long trek  of our week (the wilderness). If we invest in Shabbat we will acquire meaning in our lives, especially in these dark days.

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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