Every Jew committed to live and teach Torah may find very discomforting if not embarrassing this week´s parashah. How can we engage in vengeance and carnage, in the slaughter of ‘the other’ including women and children?
This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Masei, contains violent passages from which most modern readers will want to disassociate themselves — believing they do not reflect our Judaism, our values, who we are and aspire to be. But if we do not limit ourselves to the reading of the Torah but analyse its content alongside the text of the Haftarah for this week (Jeremiah 2:4-28 3:4), we will be able to understand that Biblical narratives can be as complex and contradictory as human nature is.
In synagogues all over the Jewish world, verses like these will be chanted aloud this week: “wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian” (Numbers 31:3), “slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman that has known man carnally” (31:17). The extermination of the Midianites is interpreted by our sages as an act of eradication of any foreign influence that may separate the Israelites from their beliefs and fall into the practice of idolatry. It is not an act of ethnic cleansing but of extermination of other beliefs which were not their own in order to protect the purity of the Israelite faith. We have seen something similar in history with institutions such as the Spanish Inquisition dedicated to ensuring the purity of the faith of an entire people at the cost of the life of the heterodox, the different, the other.
What is interesting is to reflect on the complexity of the biblical narrative. For example together with the order of destroying the Midianites we also find that the wife of Moses Zipporah was a Midianite, and his father-in-law Jethro appears in the book of Exodus praising God and offering sacrifices to celebrate the freedom of the people of Israel. (Exodus 18).
The complexity of the biblical narrative goes further this week, for together with a people of Israel jealous of their religious purity we find in the reading of the Haftarah (Jeremiah 2: 4-28 3: 4) how the Israelites moved away from their beliefs and worshipped foreign gods: “For as many as your cities were your gods, oh Judea!” (Jeremiah 2:28).
The people of Israel in the biblical narrative live in a continual dilemma. On the one hand they are different from the others and they reject all foreign influence. They destroy other gods and other nations. On the other hand they long for their life in strange lands: “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt” (Numbers 11:4); or they desire to join other nations: “I despair. No, for I love strangers, and I will follow them.” (Jeremiah 2:25).
The dilemma of “purity” versus “assimilation” has accompanied the Jewish people for centuries. This reached its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries when, before the emancipation of European Jewry, many felt they had to choose between assimilation or segregation. Today the reality is quite different. I do not think we feel the need to choose, but the challenge of the survival of our Jewish identity is no less.
Today Judaism has become one of the many things on our list of “things to do”. The objection to our survival is not coming from living among others in a pluralistic society. What challenges us today is if our Judaism is our sole priority or if it is another priority, or if it is a priority at all.
I have especially in mind the difficulties our children face today to have a good Jewish education, especially those children who do not go to Jewish schools. Our children today, the future generations of Jews, live strolling school days, days to which we have to add all kinds of extracurricular activities and sports. They should be the best of their kind, they have to play football like Messi, play the violin and speak several languages. Coming to the synagogue to meet other Jewish children has become an impossible mission. Hopefully they come (tired) a couple of years before the Bar-Bat Mitzvah to receive the least education to celebrate their Jewish adulthood .
Summer can be a good time to reverse this trend, to get a certain balance. Our synagogues and movements organize wonderful summer camps. Let’s participate in them! It is a unique opportunity for our children to reconnect with their Judaism and meet other Jewish children. Let us also dedicate more time to living Judaism at home during the holidays. The challenge for our survival is not whether we separate ourselves from ‘the other’ or we follow them but the transmission of our values and heritage to the future generations. The Talmud, tractate Shabbat, says about the importance of education: “One does not keep children from school even to build the Temple.”
May we all place Judaism at the centre of our lives. May the light of the Torah enlighten our journey. Not in order to separate us from others but to serve God, making of His creation a better place for the entire humanity.
Rabbi Haim Casas (Ordained 2017)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.