Posts Tagged 'Matot'

Off the Mark, But On Target

Despite only being eleven years old at the time, Yadid decided to fast on Yom Kippur. Being that he was not yet a Bar Mitzvah (13 years old) he had no obligation to do so. We were clear with him that if he ever wanted to eat or drink he should stop fasting. At the end of the break on Yom Kippur we were headed back to synagogue for Mincha. At this point Yadid asked, ” Is it harder for people who do not see themselves to be obligated to keep mitzvot to fast on Yom Kippur? I mean since I know I can eat it makes it even harder for me not to eat.” What is the interplay with our sense of obligation and ability to be accomplished?

Yadid’s question makes me think about  Lech Lecha. There our nation’s journey began with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. He was off to the land of Canaan. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of previous Torah portion, we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, as we see later in the this Torah portion in Avram’s travels to Egypt he was equally unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying in Canaan. How are we to compare the Avram’s divine quest with Terach’s life journey?

In the Gemara we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”( Kidushin 31a). This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own sake. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. At first Avram is successful in following God’s direction to go to the land of Canaan, but soon after he gets there he does not stay. But still he aspires to go and does eventually comply and settle in the land of Canaan. In many ways we are all still beneficiaries of this aspiration and this relationship. Beyond the scope of going to Israel, we all fail to fulfill God’s commandments, but with clear expectations it is possible for us to try again and succeed.

I was reminded of Yadid’s question again when reading Matot-Massei, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh asking for the lands east of the Jordan as their portion in the Promised Land, these being prime pastureland for their cattle. Moshe is initially angered by the request, but subsequently agrees on the condition that they first join, and lead, in Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan. Is this a success or failure?

As the story goes there once was a prince who becomes a master archer. The prince excels to such a point that he believes he’s the finest archer in the world. On his journey homeward, the prince stops in a small town to get something to drink. Across from the tavern, the prince sees a barn with painted targets along the entire side of the barn. And, there is a single arrow, dead center in every target on the barn. How could such a master archer be living in this small town? Finally, the prince sees this young boy and asks him. “It was me,” says the boy. “Show me,” demands the prince. They stand. The boy takes aim. The boy hits the side of the barn, far away from any of the targets. Then, the boy runs into the barn. He emerges with a brush and a can of paint. He paints a solid circle around the arrow he has just shot, then two more circles to form a target. The boy says, “That’s how I do it. First, I shoot the arrow, and then I paint the target.” 

A Young Assistant To The King Paints Bullseyes Drawing by Charlie Hankin

We all want to be successful and still we are all prone to miss the mark. It is meaningless to claim success by painting the target. Our shared success and accomplishment is stipulated by clearly stating shared goals from the start. In this case even when we miss the target we can support each other in eventually or in other ways hitting the target. Even though Moshe was initially angered by their request this story of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh was a success.

 Avram and the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and  half of Manasseh are successful even with different results because their commitment is clear, known, and shared. Yadid’s wisdom was in expressing the difficulty of accomplishing goals when we do not share a common understanding of commitment. As my friend Diana Bloom always says, ” People do not fail, systems fail.” In our lives we ask, do we have the systems of accountability in place to make sure we hit the mark?

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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